Wed, 03 Nov 2010


By Tom Philpott
I spend my days teasing out the trouble that lurks behind the towering bounty of our food system. How is it that Americans can get a McDonald's "McDouble" (a double cheeseburger) for a dollar? In the time it takes you to eat it, I can give you a bite or two of the social and ecological ruin that accompanies that burger. Or you can just scroll through my archive.

While writing about food politics on my brutalist Dell "Latitude" laptop, I often dream of a sleek new MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. And as someone who reads a lot of online news for my job, I kind of want an iPad. I also wouldn't mind trading in my perfectly serviceable 3G iPhone for the new-and-improved 4G. (That flash would really improve my Tom's Kitchen photos, wouldn't it?) Honestly, it's mainly lack of funds that holds me back from these purchases.

In other words, like a lot of folks, I think hard about where my food comes from, but spare very few thoughts about where my gadgets come from. Still, every once in a while, I come across an item like this post by Elizabeth Grossman, on the excellent public-health blog The Pump Handle, that really makes me pause.

No gadget is an island

Grossman filed a report from the Indonesian island of Batam, which lies just across the strait from Singapore, a major manufacturing center of electronic gadgets and components. If U.S. high-tech companies have outsourced manufacturing to countries like Singapore, then places like Batam are where Singapore-based companies send their labor-intensive, highly toxic work. Writes Grossman:

Thanks to much of the island's designation as a special economic zone beginning in 1989, Batam has been experiencing explosive growth. In the 1970s, the island's population was under 10,000. Today it has soared to about 900,000 and continues to grow. The industry here is primarily electronics -- shipbuilding and general manufacturing are also major industries -- with Batam's workers providing inexpensive labor for assembly line production for Singapore-based operations of international companies. Panasonic, Epson, Sanyo, Siemens, Flextronics, Infineon, Teac, Schneider, Unisem, and Philips are some of the names we see on factory buildings in the Batamindo Industrial Park, one of the island's largest industrial parks. The website for its Singapore-based developer notes that more than 60,000 people work for the companies located here.

The food and consumer-tech industries have similar challenges: keeping the end product reasonably cheap while maintaining brisk profitability. That means holding down worker wages.

"[U]nions are the exception throughout the electronics industry worldwide," reports Grossman, "a legacy of the historical anti-union bias of the microchip industry." Remarkably, the workers at Batamindo Industrial Park are unionized, but all is not well. Grossman met with union workers and heard their stories. Here's a sampling:

One union member describes his hearing loss after working at the same factory for ten years. He's had to go to Jakarta (about 540 miles away) for treatment, he says, showing us copies of his audiometry tests. Another, who's worked for Varta for 15 years making nickel metal hydride batteries, tells us of colleagues suffering from cancer. Yet another union member tells us about co-workers who've been diagnosed with lung disease[; the] official diagnosis is TB -- "from printed circuit board cutting dust."

Several people mention women's reproductive health concerns, among them menstrual problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and quadruplets. One man puts his hand on his wife's shoulder and tells us of her breast cancer. She's spent 15 years working in a plant assembling lithium batteries. No one knows if there's a connection, but when pressed, the company management paid for her treatment.

If all of this sounds vague and anecdotal, it has mainly to do with lack of resources for research, not the lack of basis for concern. What government or corporation has the incentive to study the health effects of working in Indonesia's technology manufacturing sector? The governments of the United States, Singapore, and Indonesia all benefit from strong electronics sales -- think tax revenues and GDP growth -- as do the companies that manufacture and market gadgets. A country with a robust public healthcare system might have an incentive to crack down on industries that routinely sicken workers; but Indonesia has no such thing. So to figure out how the workers who make our gadgets are faring, we have to rely on anecdotes. And those anecdotes are dismal.