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Report exposes Pakistani e-waste recycling workers’ plight
21 February 2013
KTH The Royal Institute of Technology
A 6-year-old girl in a remote Pakistani village sits quietly in the family’s kitchen, breathing toxic fumes that drift from across the table where her father is burning a computer circuit board. The scene is one of scores documented by researcher Shakila Umair, whose has compiled the first known evidence of horrifying conditions in the country’s secretive e-waste recycling cottage industry.
After months in Pakistan gaining locals’ confidence – and even risking a confrontation with a local mob boss – Umair is just beginning to get the ICT industry to pay attention to the problem. The PhD student from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm presented her findings last week at the ICT for Sustainability conference in Zurich, which was attended by representatives from the public and private sector, as well as academia.
“This is the unfortunate reality for many people in Pakistan,” says Umair, a native of Pakistan. “I have seen barrels of acid filled with disintegrating wires set just a few feet from where an entire family sleeps, and children playing in the soot left from people burning wires in the open air.
“The ICT industry could work with the Pakistani government to make the work safer, but the biggest problem has been the lack of documentation about the problem and its extent. So I hope this is an eye-opener for them.”
Umair’s social life cycle assessment documented hundreds of individuals, including adults and children, working without any protection from the dioxin, furans and other dangerous substances released as a result of the crude methods of manually dismantling discarded electronic devices and extracting precious materials. They work 12 hours shifts and are paid the equivalent of USD 2.70 per day, she says.
“Relatively small protective measures such as gloves and masks would easily make a big difference on the workers’ health. But they cannot afford it themselves,” she says. She also recommends making safety information available workers.
“The only time I saw someone using a mask was while dismantling printers,” she says. “It was because of the toner. Unlike dioxin, it’s visible. But it was a basic surgical mask that stops nothing.
“They are not aware of the toxins they are inhaling, and some of them are illiterate. They’re unable to relate their illnesses to the work they do. I talked to people who said they felt uncomfortable physically, that they had trouble breathing. But they said they have no choice.”
Stopping the flow of e-waste to Pakistan is not Umair’s goal. “If it stops, their livelihood vanishes. I am from Pakistan and I would never want to see that happen,” she says. Furthermore, she says some of the e-waste comes in the form of donations, which make it possible for many in Pakistan to get access to ICT tools that they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Nokia’s Sustainability Manager for Africa and the Middle East, Ulrike Vött, was one of those listening to Umair’s presentation in Zurich. “With our Take back and awareness campaign involving media across Pakistan during 2011, we have started to try and find first ways of engagement - with the aim of putting the topic onto the agenda," Vött says. "It is a long way to solving the e-waste problem. There are many other, governmental and non-governmental and industry groups working on this issue, and the picture is very complex indeed.”
Shakila Umair presents her investigation of horrifying conditions in Pakistan's secretive e-waste recycling cottage industry.
A worker shows his hands after burning wires.
E-waste workers burn wires in an open yard in a Pakistani village.