Let’s minimize our contribution to the oppression of workers

(Published on The Suburban’s website, 2021-7-28)

The other day, I was looking for a set of earbuds, you know, the ones that come with Apple iPhones and have a microphone built in to one of the earphone cords. My latest iPhone no longer has an earphone jack, and I needed earbuds with a 1/8 inch plug to use with an older model of smartphone. So I asked a friend if she had what I was looking for. No, she did not; she gave the set that came with her phone to her husband, who apparently goes through earbuds frequently. Perhaps he winds the cord too tightly, as that is the usual way that these things stop working, I suggested to her.

Sensing my criticism she argued, “They’re very inexpensive, so who cares?” I thought about that. Why did I care anyway? And was she correct, that they are truly inexpensive? Here are my thoughts.

Now, I’m a physician, but I’m also an engineer, and I value quality products, even if mass-produced; they are the creation of designers and engineers, and to devalue their intellectual effort is to devalue those designers and engineers also. Second, the Apple earbuds are not as inexpensive as the $8 earbuds you can buy at the dollar store. Apple charges US$29, or almost $39 Canadian, for their earbuds. When you include sales tax and shipping, it would take a minimum wage worker in Quebec more than 3 hours of work to buy a set. So, not cheap! Third, there are environmental costs associated with producing and disposing of these electronic products. The magnets are made of neodymium, a “rare earth” mined mostly in China; leading to my fourth concern: what exactly do we know about the degree of exploitation of workers in these industries, in totalitarian countries?

I won’t argue whether Apple’s higher prices are justified, other than to say that I have Apple computers that are more than 20 years old that are still working. I won’t apologize for being an Apple fanboi. And you can easily find earbuds on the market that cost 3 times as much as Apple’s.

But here’s the thing. Most, if not all of them are made in China. In fact, I don’t think we possess the capacity any longer to make the critical components in Canada. We very likely can make the copper wire, and we can probably make the molds (using German machine tools) to cast the plastic bits. Neodymium magnets? Probably not. Even if we could make earbuds in Canada, in quantity, they would likely need to sell for several hundred dollars a pair to be profitable.

Now, what would happen if, because of a political dispute with China, they stopped trading with us? Earbuds without microphones: not a big deal. But many people depend on the ones with mics to be able to use their mobile phones in noisy environments. What would happen to the price if these suddenly became scarce?

When the COVID pandemic first became a thing, there was a run on toilet paper. OK, we can make toilet paper in Canada; ultimately, not a big deal. But if there is ever a run on earbuds with mics, they will be worth thousands of dollars. Everything that I’ve said above applies, in spades, to smartphones and other hi-tech stuff.

So, let’s value the earbuds and smartphones we have, let’s take good care of them, let’s respect the efforts of their designers and engineers, and let’s minimize our contribution to oppression of workers and to the environmental degradation of our planet.

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