The raw materials for your iPhone are mined in atrocious conditions on one continent and assembled by overtired, underpaid and suicide-prone factory workers on another. Consumer electronics like smart phones, as Isaac Wilder, the head of the Free Network Foundation, once said, are “essentially made of suffering.”
But that suffering is typically an ocean or two away, so we’ve gotten pretty good at not paying too much attention to it. Says the American public: well, those people are really poor and that’s just how things are over there. And didn’t that fat guy make a bunch of that stuff up, anyways?
So here’s another depressing ingredient in your iPhone, and this one is right in your backyard: The death of scores of cell phone tower servicers, or “climbers,” who get paid about $10 an hour to climb 1,000 feet to do maintenance work.
Propublica and PBS Frontline have released an exhaustive report about the phenomenon of climbers’ deaths, and while the numbers are eye-opening, it’s the same old story at the core of it all: Too few people doing too much work, cost-cutting that results in shoddy safety equipment and strained working conditions, and next to no oversight. And since these guys are almost always working as subcontractors for a third party, the big cell companies can shirk any responsibility for their deaths.
Here’s the story of one such climber’s death:
Here are some stats, from the report:
- There are 10,000 climbers working nationwide
- There are 280,000 towers that need servicing
- In the last 8 years, 50 climbers have been killed on the job
- The fatality rate is 10 times that of the construction industry
- 15 died on jobs for AT&T, more than its three closest competitors combined
- Death toll peaked between 2006-2009, when AT&T was frantically upgrading its cell towers for the iPhone contract
And that last one is especially interesting—the worst period occurred as AT&T was trying to sate Apple’s demands, and its competitors were preparing to take on the iPhone: “After the phone debuted in summer 2007, triggering a tsunami of data usage, customers began complaining about dropped calls and spotty service … AT&T went to Apple, asking for help in limiting traffic to buy time for tower upgrades. Instead, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs explored switching to Verizon.”
The resultant frantic drive for better cell coverage helped spawn the Wild West-y conditions that claimed so many climbers’ lives. On top of lax safety measures, it doesn’t help, of course, that many of the climbers are thrill-seeking daredevils who happily shun safety equipment. Who else, after all, would be willing to dangle 200 feet straight above the ground?
It’s yet another grim reminder atop a big dusty pile of them that there’s a deeply ugly underbelly to our fetishization of consumer innovation, our breathless lauding capitalist gurus like Jobs. Someone has to work overtime in hellish conditions to meet the enormous consumer demand ginned up by these forces—whether they’re African miners, Chinese factory workers, or, yes, American cell tower repairmen. And now that those folks are dropping dead in our own backyards, maybe it’ll be just a little bit harder to discount the invisible costs that make our toys possible.