Challenging the Chip

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Book: Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry


By Soenke Zehle at Metamute at

"there is a brand of activist research texts that are neither general audience nor conventionally academic, and this is one of them. Challenging the Chip introduces the transformation processes already taking place across this industry, not only in greater detail than Grossmann's High Tech Trash, but also from the perspectives of the activists and researchers involved, with a corresponding emphasis on a sharing of experiences and strategies. In 25 chapters organised into sections on the state of the global electronics industry, on labour rights and environmental justice, and on e-waste and extended producer responsibility, the authors want to 'provide a vision of what a sustainable electronics industry can look like', linking environmental justice, the precautionary principle, and extended producer responsibility in a 'triad of sustainability'. And improvements notwithstanding, it becomes apparent that the electronics industry has yet to live up to the 'electronics sustainability commitment', a pledge demanding that '[e]ach new generation of technical improvements in electronic products should include parallel and proportional improvements in environmental, health and safety, as well as social justice attributes' – as our electronic gadgets become faster, their eco-social footprints should also become smaller.

The section on the global electronics industry opens with a discussion of 'networks of mass production in the new economy' by Boy Luethje, a sociologist and analyst of contract manufacturing as well as social movement unionism. Luethje concludes his detailed survey of how the contemporary structure of the electronics industry is becoming both more centralised and more fragmented at the same time by suggesting that the backbone for greater ecological and social control of the industry can only be provided by viable workers' movements in the centres of electronics production. Joseph LaDou, Director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine, summarises recent medical research on environmental and occupational health across the electronics industry, noting that, largely as a result of industry resistance, the definitive study on cancer and reproductive hazards in the semiconductor industry has yet to be conducted. This is all the more important as many of the workers in electronics assembly are young women. Anibel Ferus-Comelo has contributed research on their experiences and of the violation of their basic worker's rights. Other chapters in the first section offer national studies of the electronics industries in China (Apo Leong and Sanjiv Pandita), Thailand (Tira Foran and David A. Sonnenfeld), India (Sanjiv Pandita), and Central and Eastern Europe (Andrew Watterson).

The section on environmental justice and labour rights affirms the need to address the much lamented separation of these fields of struggle, and introduces the network approaches of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (Leslie Byster and Ted Smith) and the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Health and Safety (Amanda Hawes and David N. Pellow) that have had some success in bringing community, environmental, and worker organisations together. In an attempt to broaden the historical horizons of contemporary organising campaigns, David N. Pellow and Amelia Simpson give an account of the 'foremothers' of contemporary electronics activists – the immigrant cannery workers in the Bay Area. A series of case studies introduce similar efforts from across the globe, including Scotland (James McCourt), Mexico (Connie García and Amelia Simpson, Raquel E. Partida Rocha), and Taiwan (Shenglin Chan, Hua-Mei Chiu, and Wen-Ling Tu, Yu-Ling Ku). The section concludes with 'Unionizing Electronics: The Need for New Strategies' by Robert Steiert, Director of the Electronics Sector at the International Metalworkers' Federation (IMF). Steiert urges unions to intensify cooperation with NGOs and international agencies sympathetic to their agenda, and explores the use of International Framework Agreements (IFAs) to establish core labour standards that create an environment in which workers may organise without fear of reprisal.

The section on e-waste and extended producer responsibility begins with an overview of the electronics production life cycle (Leslie Byster and Ted Smith), followed by a survey of high-tech pollution in Japan (Fumikazu Yoshida), an account of the export of international e-waste (Jim Puckett), and of informal e-waste processing in Delhi (Ravi Agarwal and Kishore Wankhade). Several chapters directly address the emerging framework of extended producer responsivility (EPR), including overviews of EPR-activism in the US (Chad Raphael and Ted Smith) and of the international impact of new EU regulation (Ken Geiser and Joel Tickner), and a case study that assesses the extent to which EPR legislation has already transformed the industry in Sweden and Japan (Naoko Tojo). The final chapter discusses the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which successfully held Dell responsible for the conduct of its recyclers (David Wood and Robin Schneider)." (

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