How ethical is your smart phone? Forced Labor and Exploitation in the Tech Industry

three white ceramic pots with green leaf plants near open notebook with click pen on top
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

I asserted a couple months back that the elephant in the room in the ethical clothing conversation is money. That may be true, but the even bigger elephant in the room in the ethical manufacturing conversation at large is technology. Hashtag campaigns like #fashrev, fair trade blogs, ethical boutiques – they all rely on sophisticated tech devices with access to the internet to promote themselves and build community. Let’s face it: we need technology to make movements go global. It’s an asset.

But every single device we rely on to spread the word about our ethical values was produced by exploited laborers, from raw materials sourcing to production. Let’s explore a few categories where exploitation occurs:


According to the International Labour Organization, approximately “21 million people are now victims of forced labor.” Of that, 68% are caught in forced manufacturing/physical labor jobs not associated with sex trafficking.

Side note: Think about that statistic for a second. Last month, hundreds of women participated in Dressember to raise funds for anti-trafficking efforts focused primarily on women caught in sex slavery and yet 68% of the world’s slaves and indentured servants are trapped in the raw goods and manufacturing supply chain, more than half of them men. I think it’s easy for us to stand up against injustices from which we can disassociate ourselves. It’s easy to see that those evil people over there sexually exploiting women and girls are evil, but it’s harder to point the finger back at us. Are we willing to say that we’re evil for willfully buying products that were produced by trafficked people?

Academics and anti-trafficking organizations use the term forced labor rather than slavery because the former term captures the range of ways in which people are trapped. Not everyone is stolen away in the night. Many workers leave their countries with work visas in hand on the promise of better work elsewhere. When they arrive on the work site, however, their papers are taken away, leaving them unable to move freely within the country or go home. In effect, they are trapped on the remote work site (source: Freedom Center Modern Slavery Exhibit).

Most forced labor in raw materials occurs in coal mining and pig iron production, industries heavily associated with the automobile industry. In fact, Ford dedicates a whole page to discussing their efforts to extricate themselves from markets known to rely on forced labor. Pig iron, a byproduct of coal and coke (a high-carbon fuel) is used to make steel, an essential ingredient in vehicle production, but not exclusive to it.

Traditional computer cases (or towers) are made out of steel. Laptops contain steel, too. Even your iPhone contains a nickel-steel composite and (on some models) a steel ring around the home button. Not to mention that the assembly machines required to put your phone together are made of steel, at least in part.

TL;DR – Materials sourced from industries known for trafficking helped make your phone.



Chinese worker, 26, making Apple iPhones died after enduring 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, family claim (Daily Mail)

Tracing raw materials sourcing was the hard part. Finding human rights abuses in the tech industry is as easy as breathing. The family of Tian Fulei assert that their son died after working 84 hours per week at an Apple factory near Shanghai. Findings from a China Labor Watch investigation conducted at Pegatron, the factory where he worked, concluded that workers, on average, took 95 overtime hours per month, over double the legal recommendation.

In 2010, Foxconn, a factory that makes tech products for Apple, Sony, Dell, and others, attracted global media attention when it was discovered that there had been 15 attempted suicides among workers in that year alone. The attempted suicide rate now numbers over 20, with 17 resulting in death.

In Dongguan, workers at a poorly ventilated factory that produces cell phones were asked to clean each screen with something described as “banana oil,” a compound now known to contain n-hexane, an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage. They discovered this when several of the young workers became paralyzed, unable to lift themselves out of bed.

In 2014, a China Labor Watch investigation found children under 16 making cell phone covers for Samsung at one of their Chinese factories. Children are paid less and subject to the same conditions as adults, and many of them were working 12 hour night shifts 6 to 7 days a week.

It’s easy to say this is China’s problem, that if China cared for its people they would implement more rigorous factory reforms. But Kate Cacciatore, former corporate responsibility director at STMicroelectronics gets to the heart of the problem:

A huge issue is how companies walk the line between trying to get the best financial performance and also achieving high safety standards. There is a constant pressure on companies to cut costs, and that pressure works itself down the supply chain.

The companies we support – like Apple and Dell – demand lower costs from the factories they contract with to pad their own profit margins. Factory managers competing for big contracts cut costs in the only places they can: labor and safety upgrades. We aren’t the only ones to blame, but we can’t put this all on China.

TL;DR – Tech factory workers endure long hours and unsafe conditions to make your phone.


Take heart. You can do something about all of this…

1. Boycott tech companies and let them know why you’re doing it. 

  • Tell them that you demand better conditions for workers.

2. Buy refurbished or used technology. 

  • Use sites like Newegg and B&H Photo to purchase high quality, used or refurbished goods the next time you’re in the market for an upgrade.

3. Buy a Fairphone.

  • An ethically produced smartphone exists! It runs on Android technology, comes in 4 colors, and can be yours for around $575.00 (that’s only $125.00 over a new iPhone).
  • This phone is not yet available outside of Europe, but they’re working on it! Sign up here to let them know you’re interested!

What steps are you taking to ensure that your technology was ethically sourced?


Photo Credit: Creative Commons license by Johan Larrsen on flickr. Text and overlay added by me.

Looking for more? Shop 100+ sustainable and ethical brands with my Sustainable Brand Directory.
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  • Thank you for writing this! I was just researching ethical computers and not having a ton of luck – now I'll look at Newegg and B&H Photo! And I have signed up to tell Fairphone that I want one in the US.

  • You can go ahead and get on their mailing list to let them know they have your interest!

  • This is a great article, Leah! Phones are one of the things that concern me, since everyone has them and they've become such a common part of our society. I'm super interested in the Fair Phone, and it looks like they are gathering info. to see if they have enough interest to ship to the U.S. I would buy one!

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