Technology has become an increasingly bigger part of our everyday lives. We transmit information through cell phones, computers and tablets, we do our work digitally and a large portion of our entertainment is channeled through some sort of electronic device. It would not be bold to say then, that in contemporary society we greatly value our electronics.
This past week, Amnesty International published a report in association with African Resources Watch, a human rights group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that pit our love for electronics with the values many in western society hold. Many of the precious metals mined for use in cell phones where found to have been extracted using child labour, a fact relevant parties such as Samsung, Apple and HP, have claimed is under internal investigation. This raises the question as to how much we hold dear to our cheap electronic devices in light of such revelations.
This is not to say this story is anything new. The Congo has had a long history of being exploited, from its use as a slave trading post, to the advent of King Leopold’s horrific “Congo Free State” in the late 19th century and role as a Belgian colony, child labour is nothing new for the people of this territory. Even following independence in the 60s, the Congolese people continued to deal with western intervention following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and replacement of democratic government by the US backed military dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu, an anti-communist who personified all too many dictators of the Cold War era.
Congo’s modern landscape, characterized by the plethora of multinational corporations vying for resources, has seen its fair share of human rights abuses, with euphemisms such as “artisanal mining” masking the use of over 4.7 million children in mines handling dangerous metals. We all know these conditions are horrendous and a large majority of people are against the use of child labour, then why do these practices still occur? It seems like it would be easy to reach a consensus on the fact that children operating dangerous acids and equipment should not be tolerated, however here we are, another report being heaped onto the never ending pile of human rights abuses conduced in Congo over the last century and a half. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that the torpedo that sank King Leopold’s “Congo Free State” was in fact the work of two investigators, Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, who exposed the atrocious practices of the Force Publique Army, an inquiry that commended international outcry.
Why then, can’t today’s society make sufferable the consequences of child labour to corporations that enable it? Although the hostage taking and hand cutting practiced during the rubber cultivation of 1900s Congo bears a level of barbarity unseen in this report, the exploitation of these children in a global setting that values human rights should ascertain a level of public outcry and push for change.
Herein lies the core issue when it comes to human rights involving labour in contemporary society; it is incredibly difficult for the consumer to detach himself from the products at market. According to a study done by IHS. Enterprise in 2014, an all American made iPhone, with all the labour rights accorded to western workers, would cost over 2000$ at the market! Not only would a large majority of consumers not want to spend 2-3x the amount for what we are used to seeing as the cost for electronics, it would cease to be affordable to the large majority of the population. The ability of companies to satisfy the demand of consumers for such products is largely tied to their general affordability, thus the fact that charging 2000$ an iPhone would thus ultimately kill the iPhone.
This issue thus seems to be with the efficiency in manufacturing goods. As long as people desire goods at a cheap price, the corporations exploiting children for labour will continue to supply these goods to a willfully blind society. The rapid demand created by swift industrialization of the western world, along with the exponential growth of technology has seemed to have created a gap in what we desire as sold to us by multinational corporations, and what is feasibly manufactured for costs we can afford. We have not reached a point where automation can fully replace the labour costs involved in mining and manufacturing the materials required for our numerous wants and needs, therefore many find it necessary to exploit the powerless to bridge that gap.
The proposed solution is in no way clear, however measures that may alleviate and quicken the process towards fair labour practices seem to be related to automation in improving the efficiency of the manufacturing processes. Intensified investment into automation and the removal of human labour to be replaced by a greater proportion of “free” labour by machines will eventually aid in reducing the demand for cheap human labour, hopefully moving towards fulfilling the two desires at conflict.
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