[COLUMN] Joining the dots: Labour, sustainability, resilience in gender and climate change

17 October 2016

This article is part of a series of GenderIT columns. Four columnists, 2 in English and 2 in Spanish, will open up topics and themes that we want to learn more about. Nadika looks at how writing and creating things online has helped herself and other trans people; Sonia Randhawa from Malaysia is writing about the links between climate change and gender justice. In Spanish, Evelin Heidel from Argentina will share her experiences in gender, technology, programming and access; and Angelica Contreras from Mexico will write about young women and their lives immersed in technology.

Artwork courtsey of Flavia Fascendini

The Pearl River delta in China is the global manufacturing hub for electronics. China commands the highest percentage of the world’s electronics exports and it is here that they are made, and predominantly made by women. Through decades of sustained organising and advocacy, workers in these factories no longer face the stereotypical sweatshop conditions that once dominated the industry. However, this doesn’t mean that the connection between gender and environmental challenges in this industry has been severed.

Here I would like to examine the environmental burden of hardware and its contribution to climate change; then I’ll look at the working environment of the women workers in the Pearl River delta, including the history of activism and how the industry is evolving; lastly I’ll look at women workers and resilience, how climate change is going to impact those on the lowest rungs of the manufacturing industry.

I shall start, however, with a proviso. As noted in the previous article, the connections between gender, ICT and climate change are complex and there is no attempt in this article to be comprehensive. Rather, I am focusing on the electronics manufacturing process – which ignores the processes of extraction and exploitation which occur before the raw materials come to the electronics factory. This is not to minimise the importance or impact of these activities, but to keep to the space constraints of this article!

Nitrogen trifluoride is used in producing silicon chips and LCD displays, and is 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

One of the reasons why modern electronics have such a high carbon footprint is because the requirement for ever smaller components means an increasing reliance on rare, pure metals. This means that the fossil fuels required to produce a computer chip are 600 times its own weight. For a car, the estimate is twice its own weight in fossil fuels. Further, the lighter the electronics, and the smaller the carbon footprint of their USAGE, the larger the carbon that they embody. In other words, a laptop uses less energy than a desktop, but more energy, and more emissions, are used, and created, in its manufacture. Also, carbon-based gases are not the only emissions that come from the process of manufacture – nitrogen trifluoride is used in producing silicon chips and LCD displays, and is 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

There are some manufacturers who offer limited information on the overall contribution to greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of their product, or in comparison to other products, there is little information available on how these figures are reached. There is a lot more information available on electricity consumption of using devices than there is on the carbon embodied in them.

The women who produce these goods have a long history of poor working conditions. A video from the Asia Monitor Resource Centre looks at the migration of the electronics industry from the United States to China, and the push-factor of a work-force that was campaigning against the negative health effects of electronics work. Rather than making the factories safer, the migration just moved the risks from one set of workers to another poorer set of workers. And as Chinese workers in the Pearl River delta organise, there are concerns that this migration is taking place once again, to either more remote areas of China or to other countries where workers have not yet organised or are unaware of the need for stringent safety protocols.

While conditions have improved some as the economy upgrades, some employers simply chose to move their old production lines to inland provinces where labor is cheaper and regulations more laxly enforced, or even moving their factories overseas.

As Keegan Elmer, from the China Labour Bulletin, says, “The enforcement of legislative protections available for workers vary drastically between enterprises and regions. Generally, in manufacturing hubs, we don’t have the same sweatshop conditions that we saw ten or fifteen years ago, when they were fairly low-tech, labour-intensive and highly unsafe working environments. However employees may or may not have the proper safety protections as the industry has moved inland to poorer regions, rather than upgrade their technological level. This is happening more and more – foreign capital is choosing to relocate to other parts of the country, or even to the next neighbourhood over, to find a cheaper place. While conditions have improved some as the economy upgrades, some employers simply chose to move their old production lines to inland provinces where labor is cheaper and regulations more laxly enforced, or even moving their factories overseas.”

One of the other aspects that Keegan Elmer commented upon is the changing gender make-up of the factories. While he does not draw a causal connection, as they become safer, more desirable places to work, and as the women of the work-force fail to comply with the allegedly ‘quiet’ Asian stereotype, these jobs are opening up to both older and male workers. However, in the less safe – and dirtier – factories outside the Pearl River delta, the jobs are still overwhelmingly female.

“The manual dexterity of the oriental female is famous the world over. Her hands are small and she works fast with extreme care. Who, therefore, could be better qualified by nature and inheritance to contribute to the efficiency of a bench-assembly production line than the oriental girl?”: Excerpted from investment brochure

How does this connect with climate change? The links are not direct, but the factories that are producing our electronics are primarily staffed by women, particularly those who are failing to live up to legislative controls on working conditions and safety. This is where the bulk of IT emissions take place. There are links between the perceived passivity of Asian female workers, and the environmental and occupational safety and health risks they face.

Further, as Omana George from the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, says, “In our part of the world, women are the preferred workers. The patriarchal systems means that employers think women are easier to handle and suppress. In turn this means that even when we talk about leaders on the ground, 80-90 percent of the workers are women, but the leaders are men. So gendered issues such as the impact on reproductive health are often not addressed. Also, in terms of environmental impact and in terms of organising – the current challenge we are facing – we think the way to fight back against occupational safety and health problems just doesn’t stop with the workplace. It is going into the environment and affecting communities. Bringing these two movements together is something that has not happened in the electronics sector, but is happening around other issues, such as palm oil. In Korea the environmental movement is really plugged in with the OSH (occupational safety and health) issues, such as the links made with the Stop Samsung group.”

80-90 percent of the workers are women, but the leaders are men – so gendered issues such as the impact on reproductive health are often not addressed.

When it comes to resilience, whether in terms of market risks or the environment, the workers are at the bottom of the food chain. Omana says, “In terms of resilience, workers are the last to know, they are struggling to survive, they are constantly being given as little knowledge as possible, they are not allowed to unionise, and if they do unionise, the unions are busted, or the leaders are fired.”

The struggle for climate change has to include the struggle for environmental justice for the workers who face the greatest risks, with the least reward. And the majority of these workers are women.

Workers are the last to know, they are struggling to survive, they are constantly being given as little knowledge as possible, they are not allowed to unionise, and if they do unionise, the unions are busted, or the leaders are fired.

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