[COLUMN] Joining the dots: ICT sweatshops facing the heat

© ILO/R. dela Cruz

This article is part of a series of GenderIT columns. Four columnists, 2 in English and 2 in Spanish, will open up topics and themes that we want to learn more about. Nadika looks at how writing and creating things online has helped herself and other trans people; Sonia Randhawa from Malaysia is writing about the links between climate change and gender justice. In Spanish, Evelin Heidel from Argentina will share her experiences in gender, technology, programming and access; and Angelica Contreras from Mexico will write about young women and their lives immersed in technology.

In this month’s column I will be looking at intersections between ICTs, gender and climate change through the lens of the women working in the software, rather than the hardware, side of things. As the previous article demonstrated, these places often aren’t the major sites of carbon emissions. So I will be looking at two things – first, the environmental impact of data processing sites (which as stated is not as high as that of manufacturing sites, but is still not negligible), and second, the vulnerability of these workers to the impacts of climate change.

First, while the percentage of energy embodied in hardware is falling, the energy being used by data processing centres is increasing. By 2017, it’s expected that around a fifth of the IT carbon footprint will come from data processing. And that is from a total IT footprint that looks set to increase as a percentage of global carbon emissions, potentially doubling from 2007’s two percent to four percent by 2020.

There has been a lot of hype about the emissions caused by just using the internet. In 2009, it was claimed, erroneously, that two Google searches had the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle of water. While the figures were wrong, the bad publicity that followed could have helped drive many of the industry’s biggest players to make strong commitments to cutting down their emissions from data processing centres – where they store their information, whether it is Apple’s i-Cloud or Facebook’s servers. Apple is leading the fray, already sourcing 100% of their energy needs (for data processing, rather than for hardware) from clean energy sources.

According to the Greenpeace guide, the biggest obstacle to the move to clean energy is those providing dirty power. Big energy companies, for example Dominion Energy in Virginia, where a lot of data processing is concentrated, penalise companies for shifting away from their grids and continue to build capacity in dirty energy, with no plans to move to clean alternatives, according to Greenpeace’s 2015 report, Clicking Clean. While the report is very US-centric, the concerns that it raises are global – the ability of existing power companies to distort markets in favour of dirty energy. Nonetheless, the purchasing power of data processing companies is such that they are able (where law doesn’t prevent this) to invest in their own energy plants. Thus, for example, Microsoft has invested in wind energy in Ilinois, Yahoo! has done the same in Kansas, and a BT contract in the UK has ensured the construction of two new wind farms.

Original artwork by Flavia Fascendini

Overall, on a macro-scale, the largest companies seems to be moving towards a future more heavily invested in renewable energy, and less dependent upon coal, in particular, but also on other forms of fossil fuels.

This is, of course, made possible at least in part by their market share and by their profits. At whose expense is this possible – at a closer look it becomes apparent that while the companies may be responding to public pressure on the issue of addressing emissions, climate justice remains far from the radars of both big companies and policy-makers. Here, we’re shifting our lens to look at the workers within the ICT industry and how companies help workers deal with the impacts of climate change, and improve workers’ resilience.

At whose expense is this possible – at a closer look it becomes apparent that while the companies may be responding to public pressure on the issue of addressing emissions, climate justice remains far from the radars of both big companies and policy-makers.

This section focuses on the Philippines for two reasons. First, it is the business process outsourcing capital of the world. Second, the Philippines ranks 95th (joint with Lebanon) on global vulnerability – where 1 is the safest, and 182 countries are ranked; but which drops to 141 when human habitation alone is considered.

However, a quick proviso (once more) — discrimination against women in the labour force extends to the US-based workforce. Intel, for example, has ‘blue’ and ‘green’ badge workers. The former are predominantly white, predominantly male, and are entitled to free fruit and coffee at work. The ‘green’ badge workers are predominantly Latina, female and are expected to pay for their fruit and coffee despite earning an average wage of $14.50 per hour.

In contrast, the BPO workforce in the Philippines is comparatively highly paid, earning on average double the average monthly wage (PHP 29,400 or 600$, as opposed to PHP 11,700). Around three-quarters of these employees work indirectly for US-based companies with a global reach. A slight majority of this workforce (54.9%) are female, yet turnover in the industry is high and considered a major problem for employers, with an ‘attrition rate’ of 15 percent.

Nonetheless in 2014, the conditions within call centres, a major part of the BPO industry, warranted the proposal of a Magna Carta for Call Centre Workers that focused on health and safety concerns – in particular the night shift work, the conditions under which call centre workers operate and also the right to unionise. The latter is of particular concern, as, according to organsiations such as the BPO Industry Employees Network, many call centre workers are afraid to speak out about the conditions under which they work for fear of losing their jobs.

In 2014 a Magna Carta for Call Centre Workers was proposed that focused on health and safety concerns, in particular the night shift work, the conditions under which call centre workers operate and also the right to unionise. Many call centre workers are afraid to speak out about the conditions under which they work for fear of losing their jobs.

However, beyond these concerns, 1,000 lives are lost annually in the Philippines due to ‘natural’ disasters, primarily typhoons. The Typhoon Haiyan of 2013 took place during the Conference of Parties to the Rio declaration, where the Filipino delegate Yeb Sano made an impassioned speech for change. In these conditions, the owners and operators of call centres have shown a distinct lack of compassion leading to a host of memes on the unrealistic expectations of bosses, often based overseas.

Thus, the BPO industry shows in microcosm how the risks of climate change are unequally distributed, both internationally and within the US (which was starkly demonstrated by the victims of Hurricane Katrina). Climate justice is not yet part of the corporate ICT agenda, but this article argues that it is integral to a just and sustainable future, and needs to also be integral to corporations’ efforts to green their operations.

Climate justice is not yet part of the corporate ICT agenda, but this article argues that it is integral to a just and sustainable future, and needs to also be integral to corporations’ efforts to green their operations.