02 February, 2007

prison labor & e-waste—smashing a computer to pieces

"Imagine wondering if your nagging cough, cuts that won’t heal, and strange rashes have something to do with the work you are forced to do in a federal prison. Everyday US prison inmates smash apart computer monitors without adequate protection from the glass or a respirator to keep the toxic dust from their lungs." Captive Prison Labor

& from America’s Slave Labor by Christopher Moraff:

Inmates are being forced to work in toxic ‘e-waste’ sweatshops

U.S. prisoners working for a computer-recycling operation run by Federal Prison Industries (FPI) are being exposed to a toxic cocktail of hazardous chemicals through their prison jobs while efforts by some prison officials to protect them have been met with stonewalling and subterfuge.

[The Bureau of Prison's website brags that "minority groups that are at the greatest risk for recidivism benefitted more from industrial work participation and vocational training than their non-minority counterparts" and that its "principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which FPI derives approximately 60 percent of its sales."]
Since 1994, FPI has used inmates to disassemble electronic waste (e-waste)—the detritus of obsolete computers, televisions and related electronics goods—for recycling. According to a new report, “Toxic Sweatshops” (pdf)—published jointly by the the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Center for Environmental Health, California-based Computer TakeBack Campaign and the Prison Activist Resource Center—the waste contains high levels of arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead, dioxins and beryllium—all considered dangerous by the Environmental Protection Agency.
. . .

FPI, which operates as a unit of the semi-autonomous, government-run corporation UNICOR, opened its first electronics recycling business at a federal prison in Marianna, Florida, in 1994. Since then, the company’s electronics recycling program has spread to six other federal prisons across the country. Inmates working for UNICOR are paid between 23 cents and $1.15 per hour. In 2005 the company recorded $64.5 million in profits.

The problems outlined in “Toxic Sweatshops” first came to light in 2002, when UNICOR opened a recycling shop in Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security facility in Merced, California. Among their duties, prisoners at the facility were charged with separating glass cathode ray tubes (CRT) from computer monitors. Sometimes they were given hammers; other times, they were forced to improvise.

“When the operation began, most glass room workers would heft the CRT to head height and slam the CRT down on the metal table and keep slamming it on the table until the glass broke away from whatever they were trying to remove,” said one prisoner quoted in the report. “We were getting showers of glass and chemicals out of the tube.”

A single computer contains hundreds of chemicals—including up to 8 pounds of lead—that are known to cause cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive problems, says the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Prisoners interviewed for the report cite health issues, including slow-healing wounds, sinus problems, headaches, fatigue, and burning skin, eyes, noses and throats. Since no one on the recycling floor was issued proper protective gear, the guards and other personnel who supervised the inmates fared little better.

Leroy Smith, a health and safety manager at the facility, became concerned when air quality tests that he initiated showed elevated levels of toxins in the recycling center, which sat just feet from a food-processing area. After each test, Smith said, he would suspend operations and request further safety measures, only to be overridden by Atwater Federal Prison officials and UNICOR supervisors who insisted there was no safety threat.
. . .

[Smith’s attorney] Dryovage joined the case in March 2005 and filed a whistleblower protection suit with OSC on Smith’s behalf. Throughout the case, she says, UNICOR remained hidden behind a cloak of immunity, with prison authorities taking the blows. When Atwater’s warden, Paul M. Schultz, finally decided to cooperate with Smith’s case in 2005, Schultz was relieved of his position and transferred across the country to New Jersey.

“[UNICOR] basically has a sweetheart deal that nobody can look into or go about challenging,” Dryovage says. “It’s sort of like dealing with the Mafia. They have ways of getting you to back off.”

Proponents of the company say UNICOR reduces inmate recidivism by offering essential on-the-job training. Dryovage laughs that off: “Tell me, what kind of job training does an inmate get smashing a computer to pieces with a hammer?”

[links added]
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition notes that"
Under federal law, prisoners are not considered employees, and have no right to organize and no right to participate in decisions that effect their health and safety. Unlike any private company in the U.S., UNICOR facilities can bar unannounced inspections by regulators like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This gives UNICOR time to clean up its abuses and escape detection and fines.
Unlike Chinese laogai, "reform through labor," theoretically subject to (so far ineffective) complaints & rejection by consumers, FPI's DoD/government agency market base won't overly concern itself with the exploitation of inmate workers exposed to toxics in near indentured servitude conditions by a "government corporation."

C.S. Soong, radio host of Against the Grain recently interviewed "Toxic Sweatshops" report authors Gopal Dayaneni and Aaron Shuman, as well "former prison staffer Freda Cobb [who] "witnessed and has apparently been affected by UNICOR's operations." The program can be heard here.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also reminds that:

Many Local Recyclers Secretly Send Your E-Waste to

Many well meaning consumers might be surprised to learn that some of your “recycled” e-waste gets actually gets sent to prisons. UNICOR doesn’t say who uses their services, some local recycling collectors do not disclose that they use UNICOR, and some local collection programs may be using UNICOR labor without knowing it! Click Here to Find a responsible recycler in your area.
In the interlocking cogs of global injustice, US federal prison labor is but a small part of the toxic e-waste cheap-solution-shortcuts picture. The Guardian's Sept 2004 "Poisonous detritus of the electronic revolution" reveals that the previous year, "23,000 tonnes of IT and other electronic equipment was shipped out illegally, mostly to China, west Africa, Pakistan and India" from England alone.

The scale of the trade and the damage it is doing is becoming clear. A major investigation by an international coalition of environmental groups this year found huge quantities of e-waste being exported to China, Pakistan and India, where it was being reprocessed in operations extremely harmful to both human health and the environment.

The groups, including Basel Action Network (Ban), Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Toxics Link India and Greenpeace, found e-waste mixed with scrap metal from Japan, South Korea, the US and the EU, and identified a town called Guiyu, some 200 miles north-east of Hong Kong in the coastal province of Guangdong, where up to 100,000 migrant labourers break up and reprocess obsolete computers from around the world.The work involves men, women and children unaware of the health and environmental hazards of dismantling such goods - processes that include the open burning of plastics and wires, the use of acid to extract gold, the melting and burning of toxic soldered circuit boards and the cracking and dumping of toxic lead-laden cathode ray tubes.

Already Guiyu has become so polluted that well water is undrinkable and water has to be trucked in for the entire population, the report said. "We found a cyber-age nightmare," said Jim Puckett of Ban. "They call this recycling, but it's really dumping by another name. Yet to our horror, we discovered that rather than banning it, governments are actually encouraging this ugly trade in order to avoid finding real solutions to the massive tide of obsolete computer waste generated."

Women picking through wires torn out of computers. The wires are sorted by day and burned by night in this village. The families live right in the burnyards. Cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins will result from burning wires made from PVC and brominated flame retardants. Guiyu, China. December 2001. © Basel Action Network

The Basel Action Network (BAN) jhas a photo gallery that gives a vivid look at the reality behind the words in Guiyu, China and Lagos, Nigeria. The Independent's Sept 2006 "Toxic shock: How Western rubbish is destroying Africa" notes that:
. . . the UN drew up plans to regulate the trade in hazardous waste through the Basel Convention. By 1998, the European Union had agreed to implement the ban, which prohibited the export of hazardous wastes from developed countries to the developing world, but the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand refused to sign up; global waterways are still filled with ships looking to unload their toxic waste.

And now, there is a new threat - the dumping of electronic waste, or e-waste: unwanted mobile phones, computers and printers, which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons. More than 20 million computers become obsolete in America alone each year.

. . . Disposing of this in America and Europe costs money, so many companies sell it to middle merchants, who promise the computers can be reused in Africa, China and India. Each month about 500 container loads, containing about 400,000 unwanted computers, arrive in Nigeria to be processed. But 75 per cent of units shipped to Nigeria cannot be resold. So they sit on landfills, and children scrabble barefoot, looking for scraps of copper wire or nails. And every so often, the plastics are burnt, sending fumes up into the air.

"There is a tradition of burning rubbish all over Africa, but this new burning of electronic equipment is incredibly dangerous," said Sarah Westervelt of the Basel Action Network, a pressure group that monitors the trade in hazardous waste. In China, workers burn PVC-coated wires to get at the copper, and swirl acids in buckets to extract scraps of gold.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that worldwide, 20 million to 50 million tons of electronics are discarded each year. Less than 10 per cent gets recycled and half or more ends up overseas. As Western technology becomes cheaper and the latest machine comes to be regarded as a disposable fashion statement, this dumping will only intensify.
Just some of the many labels found on computers and monitors which indicated to investigators where each load of computers originated. Guiyu, China. December 2001. © Basel Action Network

With Microsoft releasing its latest operating system, Vista, the Basel Action Network (BAN) is warning of a "tsunami" of e-waste exports as corporations & consumers dump their old hardware:

A study by the Softchoice Corporation estimated that about half of the average business PCs in North America do not meet the minimum requirements for Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system, and 94 percent do not meet the system requirements for Vista Premium -- the enhanced business version. While some of this obsolescence can be solved with RAM upgrades, it is likely that many businesses will not bother with such labor intensive servicing but will simply discard their existing computers.

According to BAN, more than 50% of these computers globally, are exported to developing countries either whole or dissassembled, where they are processed and disposed of in a manner that causes serious damage to workers and local environments. The result of this is that the gains of the electronics industry translate into serious environmental costs externalized to the poor. BAN earlier documented the cyber-age nightmares in such countries as China, India or Nigeria where women and children 'cook' lead-tin soldered circuit boards over small fires, soak chips in dangerous acid baths along river ways, smash lead and phosphor laden cathode ray tubes, and burn wires and plastic housings in open dumps.

Further, BAN notes that every time software makes hardware obsolete, the digital divide is actually perpetuated, because the divide is not defined by the gap between those with computers and those without, but by those with the latest innovations and those without. And when exported obsolete computers are handed down to developing country consumers for re-use, a toxic timebomb is created there due to the fact that the electronics industry has made no effort to ensure that infrastructure is in put in place to properly collect and manage their products at end-of-life.

"Most developing countries have no infrastructure whatsoever to collect and recycle computers, so when they die they are simply dumped and burned," [BAN coordinator] Puckett said. "A truly responsible industry will take steps to ensure that innovation does not automatically equate to obsolescence, toxic waste and a growing population of hardware have-nots," he said.

Need it be said that an incarcerated minority population working for pennies on the hour beyond OSHA oversight is an unacceptable solution, no matter how 'partial,' to industry claims that the ‘waste markets’ cannot afford the labor cost involved to deal responsibly with this toxic waste? That out of sight, out of mind has a human cost that matters?



Anonymous nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez said...

heavy shit man. thanks for taking the time.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Arcturus said...

thnx for bothering to read it . . .

9:57 AM  
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