At the Barrel of a Gun

Apple takes a fair amount of guff — and deservedly so, in my opinion — for looking the other way while its main suppliers take wild advantage of their workers.

But while Apple is the poster boy for the need to improve worker conditions, the heat for the gruesome and short lives of the Congolese encompasses a much wider cast.

As a new report by Global Witness makes clear, manufacturers are not doing nearly enough to combat the mass murder and exploitation taking place near the mines, from which the bulk of the world’s supply of such precious metals as coltan, cassiterite (tin ore) and wolframite are derived.

As our supply chains become more disjointed, this is exactly the type of shameful behavior that is too easily dismissed with the wave of a hand and the contrived notion that they can’t pull out of the Congo because will hurt the Congolese.

I am critical of Greenpeace because I think that its repeated public scoldings puts the attention and resources on red herring problems in which the “cure” is worse than the disease. I think this is a much bigger deal. Sub-Saharan Africa is the future of manufacturing — not tomorrow, not 10 years from now, but certainly down the road. It is home to more than one billion people, is in a more convenient time zone than is the Pacific Rim for OEM customers both in Europe and the Americas, and is the epitome of “low cost.”

The West must work to develop positive relationships with African nations now, lest China (which is aggressively courting the subcontinent) win over the nations which sometime in the future will be the region to which it outsources. And this starts with OEMs taking a hard line over insisting clear, unambiguous materials declarations — and hitting suppliers with harsh, and public, penalties for any failure to comply.

Many Congolese youth spend their days on their hands and knees, grubbing for cassiterite with their bare hands, in forced servitude to one of the local armies. The leaders of our industry shouldn’t need a gun to their heads to try to right such injustice.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association ( He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow