Make ICT Fair

Webinar Series 2020: Sustainable ICT Future?

In these dynamic and challenging times, when digitalisation is an urgent and quickly progressing phenomenon, the discussion about the sustainability of our electronic devices is timelier than ever.

Three years after launching the project Make ICT Fair, some of the main partners (CATAPA, Swedwatch, CEE Bankwatch Network and the University of Edinburgh), together with KU Leuven and with the support of Fair ICT Flanders, organized three webinar sessions, in order to present the most relevant research conducted since the beginning of the project.

The webinars which took place on the 28th of September and the 1st & 2nd of October 2020 did not only aim to sensibilise public institutions and private consumers on the subject of human rights violations, environmental impact and labour rights in the ICT Sector, but also put forward policy recommendations and initiated an open dialogue with the industry itself. Some of the highlights included the results from the last 3 intensive years of research, capacity building and campaigning.

In what follows, we have tried to summarize the most important conclusions on what is still missing in terms of legislation, implementation and transparency in the minerals supply chain for electronics.

At the bottom of this page you can find a key reflections and recommendations summary.

You can watch the Make ICT Fair Webinar Series here



Challenges in the Copper Supply Chain

The first webinar on 28. September focused on the supply chain of copper, which despite being excluded from the current EU Conflict Mineral Regulation list, is a vital component in many ICT devices.

Moderated by Charlotte Christiaens, an experienced coordinator at CATAPA, the first to present was Linda Scott Jakobsson, a researcher for the not-for-profit organisation Swedwatch and the main author of the report “Copper with a cost”. The presentation centred around a fact-finding mission in Zambia, which included a visit to one of the largest open-pit mines in Africa. Linda emphasized the high-risk context in the country, due to weak public institutions, low enforcement of law, high poverty and corruption. Therefore, in spite of holding the largest copper reserve in Africa, the majority of Zambia`s population does not benefit from the richness of minerals. What is more, large-scale copper mining comes with a high price of environmental pollution and human rights violation: soil contamination, water pollution and abandoned local communities among others. The main conclusion put forward was that the scope of the new European conflict minerals legislation coming into force in 2021 is too limited and the current mining practices completely contradict the EU`s Sustainable Development Goals. Linda also prompted the mining companies and ICT brands to take responsibility of improving waste management, restoring livelihoods of the affected communities and assuring transparency in ICT supply chain.

The second investigation was presented by Daniel Popov, who is a national campaigner for Bulgaria at the CEE Bankwatch Network. The focus of his investigation was Dundee Precious Metals Inc., which currently owns the Chelopech mining project in Bulgaria and the smelter facility in Namibia. In this case study the connection between the global supply chain illustrated how European toxic pollution is being exported to Africa and how corporate logic causes big environmental impact due to transporting materials all over the world in order to avoid unfavourable legislation and minimize costs.

The main issues in the case study which Daniel closely examined were missing permits and documentation for the dumping site of Namibia`s smelting facility, bad communication with the company, as well as health risks like arsenic poisoning among the local population. Nevertheless, the striving for continuous dialogue and putting pressure on the company and the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), which was investing in the project, led to promising results like the modernization of the Namibian smelter, better management of the hazardous waste facility and detailed studies on soil and underground waters pollution. Daniel Popov concluded his presentation with the critical reflection that the extraction and treatment of the metal ores more often than not has human health implications and leads to environmental degradation, while the transparency of the minerals supply chain still needs major improvements.

At the end of this first webinar, Dr. Xiaohua Li (PHD researcher in the SOLVOMET Group at KU Leuven) offered everybody a more scientific perspective on the technological innovations regarding the primary copper extraction. She introduced us to the solvometallurgy, a more environmental friendly and low energy consumption alternative for current copper primary production. This insteresting field is producing promising results, however the results are still based on the laboratory research and need to be applied at a larger scale, in order to become more viable for industrial implmentation.

Artisanal and Small-scale Mining in a Fair Global Supply Chain

During the second session of the webinars, the participants gained important insights into the topic of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and its significant role in the global supply chain for electronics.

The webinar was moderated by Piet Wostyn, who is currently a project manager at the KU Leuven SIM². The critical introduction to the topic was prepared by Boris Verbrugge, a senior researcher at HIVA (KU Leuven). He reminded the attendees that the phenomenon of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is no longer an opportunity to get rich easily and nowadays “the key driving factors of the ASM expansion are poverty and subsistence needs, mostly in developing countries”. The main issue, which Boris pointed out is the “indecent work”: hazardous, informal and often underpaid, but often seen as emancipatory for the local population. At the end of his presentation, he mentioned the existing legislative frameworks like conflict free minerals (against funding armed conflicts) in the EU and other initiatives like the Fair Trade Gold or Clean Gold (cyanide and mercury free), which unfortunately are not always common place initiatives among the small-scale miners or where decent working conditions are not a reality. To end on a positive note, Boris mentioned “a new generation of sustainable mineral supply chain initiatives” like the Fair Cobalt Alliance (FCA), which tries to situate the ASM within the entire supply chain and relies on working closely together with the local communities.

The second speaker, Prof. Erik Smolders (environmental chemist and professor at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering at KU Leuven) presented some of the many case studies he conducted during his long career with a main focus on exposure and health assessments around cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  One of the most important discoveries he shared during the webinar was that the main pathway of human exposure to cobalt in DRC is the dust, due to the extraordinary high ingestion levels in the region. Furthermore, Prof. Smolders drew our attention to the multiple negative health and social impacts of metal mining. However, he finished his intervention with the reflection that despite of being a very important metal for our future technologies, we still don`t know the true risks of cobalt extraction at larger scale.

Finally, Alberto Vázquez Ruiz, Project Coordinator for NEMO at CATAPA and researcher in the Make ICT Fair project, discussed his research mission in Oruro (Bolivia), where mainly zinc-silver-lead ore and tin are extracted. During his stay in one of the biggest mining regions in the country, Alberto observed the reality of environmental issues (river contamination with arsenic and decreasing levels of ground water), which have destroyed many of the local communities, not able to live from agriculture anymore and forced to join the mining sector in order to provide for their families. However, the structure of artisanal and small-scale mining is very specific, based on the cooperative model, which Alberto described as a ¨system of self-exploitation¨, where the workers do not comply with the minimum safety standards and survive on living wages.

At the end of his presentation, Alberto uncovered the link between the Bolivian export of metal ores and the European ICT Sector: “The zinc concentrate coming from Bolivia is one of the world’s richest in indium and indium tin oxide is part of the ICT industry: all the flat screens, LCD, touch screen have a very thin layer of indium tin oxide”. Alberto Vázquez Ruiz ended his presentation with some decisive conclusions: the due diligence process is currently not being implemented in the ICT Sector, but the traders do have the complete data to do so and that requesting it does not imply a lot of resources are needed. Therefore, his clear message to all the private sector companies is: ¨Your company can drive a real change, because nobody in the zinc, lead or indium sector is doing any better”.

Trade Union Rights in the Global Electronics Industry: The Case of Indonesia

Last, but not least, the third session of our webinar series examined the right to organise in the global electronics industry, with a special focus on Indonesia. This last session was moderated by Dave Gorman, director of the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability at The University of Edinburgh. The first speaker, Jeroen Merk, is currently a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh as part of the Make ICT Fair project. He interpreted the concept of freedom of association as a fundamental workers right, but often facing multiple barriers like the nature of the industrial production, political repression and corporate resistance. Moreover, Jeroen emphasized that “most electronics manufacturing takes place in countries that undermine or repress the workers’ capacity to freely organise¨. His main reflection was that even though Indonesia provides a few optimistic developments, especially compared to other electronics producing nations like China or the US, the country still has to overcome many barriers.

The following presentation came from Hari Nugroho, lecturer at the Department of Sociology of the Universitas Indonesia. Hari first talked about the Indonesian trade union transformation after the fall of the authoritarian regime in 1998, which brought both democratisation and economic restructuring with new challenges like precarious labour and flexible work.  Focusing on his case study of the metal trade union (FSPMI) in the region of Bekasi, Hari Nugroho concluded with the remark: “In comparison to many Asian countries, the [Indonesian] trade unions` achievements in two decades are remarkable, but neoliberal agencies constantly encourage market flexibility, increasing precariousness and eroding union power.”

Finally, Fahmi Panimbang, a labour researcher and activist at the Sedane Labour Resource Centre (LIPS) provided critical feedback about the situation of the workers in the electronics production sites. Fahmi pointed out that the concept of Freedom of association is often insufficiently implemented in Indonesia, due to the lacking will from big technological companies, which “try to suppress the workers and limit their space to speak up”. According to Fahmi, one of the most urgent issues at the ICT assembly and production sites are the occupational health and safety standards. During his presentation, Fahmi Panimbang revealed that many workers in the electronics industry died or become ill due to the use of toxic and hazardous chemicals at the production sites. What is more, the medical check-ups conducted every year are often used as a reason to dismiss very ill workers.

Our most important reflections and recommendations:

  • The transparency of the ICT supply chain needs to be improved considerably, since it is still very difficult to monitor the safety, health and environmental standards in the small mining communities, which are the weakest link in the sector.

  • Artisanal and small-scale mining currently provides a significant part of the global primary mine input, with a big percentage of the poorest population depending on it. Therefore, any future initiative on improving the current situation should be done in a collaboration with the affected communities and accompanied by social measures.

  • The revised EU Conflict Minerals Regulation coming into force in 2021 urgently needs to be widened in scope and not just include 4 minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), because there are 75 elements present in a smartphone.

  • Making the Human Rights Due Diligence and Sustainable Supply Chains legislation mandatory inside the EU could be an important step forward, but it should not just apply for smelters and refineries importing minerals to the EU market, but also to the ones producing the finished product: all the large technology brands and other electronics companies should be forced to report on these issues.

We would like to express our special thanks to the graphic illustrator Iris Maertens, who invested a lot of inspiration and motivation to create beautiful visual recordings of our webinar series.

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