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‘Tsunami of E-waste’ Could Mean Decent Jobs

Burmese workers try to protect themselves from the fumes and smoke from the cooking of circuit boards in a primitive site that receives e-waste from North America and Europe. May 22, 2018 (Photo by Basel Action Network) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Burmese workers try to protect themselves from the fumes and smoke from the cooking of circuit boards in a primitive site that receives e-waste from North America and Europe. May 22, 2018 (Photo by Basel Action Network) Creative Commons license via Flickr.

By Sunny Lewis

GENEVA, Switzerland, April 18, 2019 (Maximpact.com News) – The “toxic flood of electric and electronic waste” that is growing by the day throughout the world, should be quickly converted into a source of decent work, the United Nations labor agency says, following its first-ever meeting on e-waste. Converting obsolete devices and harvesting the valuable metals inside can protect communities and environments from their toxic effects,

Representatives of governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, as well as intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, met in Geneva April 9-11 for the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste.

“Faced with what some have called a “tsunami of e-waste,” we cannot afford to be complacent,” said Nikhil Seth, executive director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, who chaired the Global Dialogue Forum. “We must urgently assist the Member States of the ILO and the United Nations in designing and strengthening the systems, policies, incentives and capacities required to manage e-waste in ways that advance decent work, promote the health of those handling e-waste and protect the planet.”

“Every stage of the reuse, recycling, refurbishing, resale” process, when it comes to technology “has to be looked at in much more systematic ways,” said Seth.

Attendees recognized the crucial need to protect those working with toxic and hazardous e-waste, which negatively affects both them and the environment.

E-waste-connected health risks may result from direct contact with harmful materials such as lead, cadmium, chromium, brominated flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), from inhalation of toxic fumes, as well as from accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food.

Primitive recycling techniques such as burning cables for retaining the inherent copper expose both adult and child workers as well as their families to hazardous substances.

A group of women leads the Migrants/Women Workers Oath to protect, promote and defend their rights as women, as workers, and as migrants. They held placards to highlight the core rights and principles of their oath. The Philippines, April 16, 2019 (Photo by ILO Asia and the Pacific)

A group of women leads the Migrants/Women Workers Oath to protect, promote and defend their rights as women, as workers, and as migrants. They held placards to highlight the core rights and principles of their oath. The Philippines, April 16, 2019 (Photo by ILO Asia and the Pacific)

“Workers handling e-waste have no voice, no bargaining power,” said worker vice-chairperson, James Towers, pointing out that “they are breaking hazardous materials by their hands. These workers are unaware of the many risks associated with handling e-waste.”

The world produces as much as 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste every year, according to the ILO. Although it is valued at 55 billion euros, or more than US$60 billion, only 20 percent of e-waste is formally recycled.

But in the informal work sector, workers recover, refurbish, repurpose and recycle electrical and electronic equipment, bringing innovative services and products to the market, giving the whole circular recycling economy a spin.

“There is [a] great business opportunity in the e-waste sector,” stressed employer vice-chairperson, Patrick Van den Bossche, who has just been appointed president of Realty Executives International.

“We need to step up our efforts in creating decent and sustainable jobs, fostering an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises, offering new products and new services, and adding value through enhancing the circular economy,” Van den Bossche urged.

Government vice-chairperson Aniefiok Etim Essah of Nigeria spoke about how e-waste is littering his country and other African nations. He maintains that this litter can be turned into a positive business opportunity, saying, “Our youth possesses the creativity and potential for learning skills to manage e-waste, giving us the opportunity to increase youth employment.”

Delegates Agree on E-Waste Basics

The Forum adopted more than a dozen key ideas as “points of consensus”  on advancing decent work and protecting the environment in this sector.

First, increased demand for electrical and electronic equipment and devices has resulted in the rapid growth of e-waste, one of the fastest growing streams of waste in the world. Recycling and re-use rates are generally low. E-waste is expected to continue to grow quickly and action should be taken by all countries to manage it better as a matter of urgency.

The ILO projects that e-waste from computers alone will increase by a factor of up to four times in South Africa and China between 2013 and 2020.

When e-waste is poorly managed it poses a severe threat to human health and the environment. Workers handling e-waste, their families and those living near disposal sites could be exposed to hazardous substances.

Most work on the management of e-waste in some developing countries takes place in the informal economy in poor conditions, with limited opportunities for workers to organize and improve their livelihoods.

While there is a lack of hard statistics, there are reports that in some countries a higher proportion of women than men work in vulnerable situations, and that the work is sometimes done by children in contravention of the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999.

E-waste differs from other streams of waste as it contains highly hazardous substances, as well as valuable materials, and also materials without current resale value.

Obsolete electronic devices are becoming an increasingly important resource for small businesses and informal workers along the e-waste value chain who recover, repair, refurbish, re-use, repurpose and recycle e-waste, bring innovative services and products to the market and facilitate a transition to the circular economy.

With the right infrastructure, regulations, incentives, policies and processes in place to manage e-waste in ways that advance decent work and protect the environment, used electrical and electronic equipment has the potential to fuel the generation of sustainable enterprises and the creation of decent employment opportunities, helping to achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Advancing Decent Work in E-waste Management

Coherent and effective laws, regulation and policies that take into account international labour standards are key to advancing decent work in the management of e-waste, the delegates agreed. Social dialogue is essential to engaging governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations in the formulation of such laws, regulation and policies, and to ensuring that they are effectively coordinated and implemented in practice.

This in turn requires that freedom of association and the recognition of the right to bargain collectively are guaranteed in law and in practice.

The capacities of administrations engaged in ensuring decent work in e-waste management should be strengthened, and the coordination between key ministries and agencies at the state and municipal levels should be enhanced.

The considerable risk of injuries, diseases, and death from the absence of appropriate personal protective equipment, tools and processes that lead to the inappropriate handling of e-waste and exposure to its hazardous substances, should be addressed as a matter of urgency, the delegates agreed.

This includes the development of specialized equipment and processes, raising the awareness of e-waste workers about the hazards they face, and the development of inclusive learning and training tools and methodologies for e-waste workers in the informal economy.

The high incidence of informality in the e-waste sector poses a major challenge for the enforcement of legislation, the growth of sustainable, productive and efficient enterprises, the improvement of the livelihoods and working conditions of e-waste workers, and the realization of their rights at work.

The “ILO Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) and the ILO Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all (2015) provide guidance for governments, employers and workers to help move millions of informal e-waste workers and thousands of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises into the formal economy, while ensuring that livelihoods are preserved and improved.

Cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy organizations and enterprises perform a key role in e-waste management in many countries. They have promoted the rights of informal workers, advocated their inclusion and recognition, and created formal and decent work opportunities, the delegates said.

They agreed that the document “Conclusions concerning the promotion of sustainable enterprises” adopted by the International Labour Conference in 2007, including aspects of corporate social responsibility, should be used by governments, employers and workers to foster an enabling environment for sustainable enterprises in the e-waste sector.

There is an urgent need to raise awareness about the growing challenge of e-waste management, and there is a need for more reliable, consistent and gender disaggregated data and statistics, analysis and research about ways to address decent work challenges, particularly in the informal economy.

While respecting intellectual property rights, there is also a need for more information about design, materials, business models, market opportunities and skills that can facilitate greater recovery, re-use, repair, refurbishment and recycling of electrical and electronic equipment in ways that advance decent work opportunities for all.

Governments should increase and promote investment in waste management infrastructure and systems at all levels to manage the rapidly growing flows of e-waste in ways that advance decent work. Employers should find ways to contribute to and promote these investments, such as public-private partnerships.

Priority should be given to managing e-waste locally, where possible.

Governments have the duty to adopt, implement and enforce labor laws and regulations to ensure that the fundamental principles and rights at work and ratified international labor conventions protect and apply to all workers engaged in the management of e-waste, the delegates agreed.

Governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations should engage in all forms of effective social dialogue to advance decent work and support a just transition towards environmental sustainability in e-waste management.

Governments, together with employers’ and workers’ organizations, should develop and implement coherent policies, strategies and measures to collect data, generate knowledge and raise awareness on decent work in the management of e-waste, including a better understanding of the functioning of the e-waste value chain.

Governments are urged to promote the culture of and protect the safety and health of all e-waste workers and improve their working conditions through labour inspection and other measures; support the formalization of enterprises, cooperatives and workers in the informal e-waste economy; and extend the coverage of social protection to e-waste workers and their families.

The World Health Organization has recently launched the E-Waste and Child Health Initiative aiming at protecting children and their families from detrimental health consequences due to e-waste.

Delegates encouraged governments to create an enabling environment for micro, small, medium and large enterprises that provide sustainable services and products along the e-waste value chain.

The ILO is a member of the UN E-Waste Coalition , formed in 2018 to increase collaboration, build partnerships and more efficiently provide support to help governments address the e-waste challenge.

Featured image:  Pallets of obsolete computers and mountains of e-waste await processing at Thailand’s Wai Mei Dat Thai Recycling Co Ltd, a company that legally disassembles electrical and electronic components, licensed by Department of Industrial Works in Thailand. May 23, 2018 (Photo by Basel Action Network)


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