Where did the slick smartphone you got for the holidays come from? You might imagine a remote futuristic industrial park, with robotic assembly lines whirring in ultra-efficient silence. But the workers assembling your phone are actually real people, and the conditions in which they work are far from humane.
An in-depth investigation of Vietnamese Samsung production facilities peels back the shrink-wrap of Big Tech to reveal an extremely vulnerable, mostly female workforce that may be sacrificing its neurologic and reproductive health in digitized Dickensian workshops to make cutting-edge smartphones.
The study, a collaboration between the global environmental watchdog IPEN and the Vietnam-based Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED), is based on interviews with 45 workers—80 percent of them women—at two factories in a provincial city in Vietnam. Their testimony revealed major health impacts related to toxic exposure and overwork. Nearly all reported experiencing “extreme fatigue or dizziness,” sometimes fainting spells. Chronic bone, joint, and leg pain were routine. Rest time is slotted between constantly rotating shifts: “many are kept on alternating day and night shift schedules, regardless of weekends.” Miscarriages are reportedly “extremely common—even expected.”
One worker described the typical daily work routine: “Some of us stand during work while others have to shuttle between two ends of the production line…it is very difficult for a 3-month pregnant woman. As they have to stand or shuttle all day long, many have suffered a miscarriage.”
For the workers raising children, currently half the female workforce, the Samsung factories deliberately separate mothers from families through the dormitory system. Workers are kept in group housing on isolated compounds, where the company prohibits children from living with parents. Instead, “children live with family members in another town or city.”
Workers also appear to be ill-informed of potential hazards at a job that might otherwise seem like a step up from the drudge work that has traditionally dominated the rural communities from which they’re drawn. Most interviewees seemed to lack a clear understanding about how their working conditions related to their health.