FAQs about Smartphone Sweatshops

Image: smartphone on ground with skull and crossbone image. Title: FAQs about Smartphone Sweatshops
Smartphones, like many electronics, are regularly made in factories where workers do not have adequate training or protective gear for handling toxic substances. Exposure to dangerous chemicals can lead to cancer, leukemia, nerve damage, liver and kidney failure, and reproductive health issues, depending on the chemical and level of exposure.

Factories use hundreds of chemicals in the electronics manufacturing process—some are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins, and others are largely untested. Manufacturers do not readily disclose the chemicals they are using. Protective gear and rigorous trainings on safe handling are needed but often not enforced, and problems of exposure are sometimes not detected until workers are already sick.

Seventy-five percent of the world’s population owns a cell phone, billions of which are made in China. In the United States, there are nearly 330 million active cell phones, more than one phone per person. As manufacturers rush to meet the rising demand for new and ever-cheaper consumer electronics, they often sacrifice the health and safety of workers.

Roughly half the world's smartphones are made in China, where tens of millions work in the electronics-manufacturing sector. These workers are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective gear or adequate training, and some are developing serious illnesses such as leukemia and nerve damage. Sick workers do not always receive sufficient treatment.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many workers have been diagnosed with occupational poisoning in China, and human rights experts that incidents are underreported. One 2010 study, “The current status of occupational health in China”, showed that between 1991 and 2008, 42,890 work-place poisonings had been documented with a mortality rate of 16.5 percent.

Enterprises with occupational hazards were widely distributed, the exposed population and cases of occupational diseases were numerous, and occupational risks were being transferred from the city to the countryside and from developed areas to developing ones.
Journal of Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, June 2010

This problem is, of course, not limited to factories in China. In 2016, AP conducted an investigative report on worker injuries from Samsung factories in South Korea and discovered that, at the request of Samsung, South Korean officials withheld information from sick factory workers about what chemicals they worked with.

Samsung is a global leader in smartphone and electronics manufacturing, employing millions of factory workers in China, South Korea, and elsewhere. As the second largest, Samsung has the power to improve working conditions throughout the electronics-manufacturing sector by influencing its suppliers.

Samsung is also a highly profitable company. Removing dangerous chemicals from its supply chain is not expensive, and is something Samsung can easily afford to do, as demonstrated by Apple. Industry experts have estimated it would cost Samsung roughly less than $1 per phone to eliminate the most dangerous chemicals.

Finally, Samsung cares about what its customers want - and there are many of them. This campaign is not calling for a consumer boycott of Samsung products. Rather, we are asking Samsung customers to raise their voices to a company they patronize, and to avoid needlessly upgrading their devices until Samsung has made changes to protect workers.

  1. Eliminate Toxic Chemicals. Stop the use of the most dangerous, toxic chemicals in Samsung supplier factories and replace them with safer alternatives. Factories making Samsung products use toxic chemicals that cause cancer (carcinogens such as benzene), chemicals that cause birth defects and miscarriages (reproductive toxins such as toluene), and chemicals that cause brain damage (neurotoxins such as n-hexane). Samsung must identify and disclose all chemicals used in supplier factories as well as those in all Samsung products. In situations where the danger of a chemical is unknown, Samsung must require proper testing. Samsung must institute and enforce appropriate exposure monitoring, medical monitoring, and effective training and management systems must be in place to ensure worker health and safety. Supplier factories must provide workers with adequate safety training and protective gear free of charge.
  2. Ensure Adequate Medical Treatment. Create a fund to pay for the treatment of injured workers and ensure that all workers injured while making Samsung products receive adequate treatment. For workers struggling to access care, Samsung and its supplier factories must institute a safe and rapid mechanism for workers to report illnesses.
  3. End Worker Abuse. Samsung and its supplier factories must ensure compliance with the ILO’s eight Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, article 32 on the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and national laws regarding occupational health and safety, worker benefits, and minimum wage for all workers, including young, migrant workers. Samsung and its suppliers must ensure worker empowerment to effectively oversee and enforce these rights without interference or retaliation from management.


In 2011, Greenpeace succeeded in pushing global footwear manufacturers including NIKE, adidas, and Puma to commit to a roadmap to remove and reduce 11 priority chemical groups from their supply chains and replace them with safer alternatives. This list is a good place to start, however, the electronics sector is reliant on hundreds of chemicals that are less known, tested, and regulated than those on this list. Companies using unregulated chemicals must take extra precautions to ensure worker health and safety by instituting a Hierarchy of Controls. In this system, elimination and engineering controls are most important, personal protective equipment is the last resort, as it is least effective.

The International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) has created helpful resources for businesses on hazardous chemicals and suggestions for substitution. Their Substitute It Now (SIN) List details 626 hazardous chemicals for which substitutes should be made to ensure a safer, toxic-free world. They also provide free assistance for chemical substitution via SUBSPORT, their substitution support portal.

Unfortunately, Samsung is not alone in manufacturing electronic devices in dangerous factories, either in China or elsewhere. For instance, although Apple announced that it would remove remove benzene and n-hexane from its supplier factories in 2014, there are still other health and safety concerns at Apple factories in China and elsewhere. Workers need urgent, sector-wide reform to protect their rights, safety, and communities.
The best way to ensure your next phone does not contribute to worker abuse is to buy a used or refurbished phone, or repair the phone you have. This ensures your purchase does not add to the growing demand for new, exploitative phones.

Mobile Karma is a great resource for used phones, and they help to divert phones from ending up in landfills.

iFixit is also a great resource to learn how to repair your electronics and order needed parts.

You can also refuse to upgrade your phone as often as advertised to avoid contributing to increasing demand for electronics.

Sadly, the problems with phones do not start or end at the factory. Conflict minerals, such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, are commonly used to make electronics components and are often mined in conflict regions, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Demand for these minerals finances warlords and can lead to forced and child labor.

In 2012, a provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act (Section 1502) required American companies to disclose information about conflict minerals they source, and the steps they are taking to ensure minerals in their supply chain are not contributing to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although the results of this law are mixed, it did help companies develop a foundation to monitor their supply of conflict minerals. In 2017, the Trump administration announced their intent in rolling back Dodd-Frank, including suspending Section 1502; despite this announcement, many major electronics companies, including Apple and Intel have committed to continuing their efforts to monitor conflict minerals in their supply chain.

High demand for newer, faster, better smartphones also produces an astonishing amount of electronic waste. US consumers dispose of an estimated 140 million phones each year. This New York Times exposé details the afterlife of cellphones which can leach toxic chemicals into landfills or end up in massive dumps in countries throughout Asia and Africa where unprotected workers sort through the waste to salvage resellable scrap metal and minerals. This is very hazardous work.

The Story of Stuff Project made a great film explaining how we’ve ended up with so much electronic waste and where it ends up.

Ethical Consumer provides tips when considering a new phone and the Electronics Take Back Coalition explains the labels to look for when choosing greener electronics.

To donate a still-working phone to a good cause you can check out Cell Phones for Soldiers.

To recycle a broken phone you can send it to an e-Stewards certified recycler, to ensure it is recycled responsibly. There are numerous e-stewards recyclers around the country. Find one near you.

iFixit is a great resource to learn how to repair your electronics and order needed parts.

You can also refuse to upgrade your phone as often as advertised to avoid contributing to increasing demand for electronics.

If you use Samsung products, take action with us! Samsung needs to hear from their consumers that improving worker health and safety is a number one priority. Sign our petition, and consider calling Samsung to voice your concerns at 1-800-SAMSUNG (1-800-726-7864).

You can also choose not to upgrade your Samsung phone as frequently as advertised; Samsung products can last several years. Get the full life out of your electronics before discarding them for a new one.

If you own Samsung shares it is very important for Samsung to hear from you! You can write to the company as a shareholder here.
The End Smartphone Sweatshops campaign is led by Green America, a not-for-profit membership organization founded in 1982. Green America’s mission is to harness economic power—the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace—to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.
If you would like to support the campaign or participate in events please contact Caroline, Social Justice Campaigns Manager, at cchen@greenamerica.org. We would love to hear from you!