Bullyboy 7: The Great Cabbage Farm vs. TV Repair Controversy

If you do an image search for "cabbage worker" on Bing or Google, you can find a lot of very interesting, very different photos, spanning a great deal of time.  Cabbage is eaten in almost every part of the world.

Well, it's interesting to me.  Let me explain why it's related to "E-Waste" exports in general, and Joseph Benson in particular.

You can search "African cabbage farm", or "Guatemala Cabbage", or "Chinese cabbage harvest", or "Russian cabbage".

Want to guess where the cabbage photo to the left was taken?  Florida.

There are some Australian aborigines cabbage worker photos from a century ago, and there is an ocean of cabbage photos on alibaba.com.  Dried cabbage, chopped cabbage.  

There are workers clinging to the sides of a moving cabbage truck in Guatemala.  There are workers dressed in white smocks and moon suits in the Czech Republic.

I was searching "cabbage" on alibaba, and searching images for cabbage, because I wanted to find something as boring and non-controversial as... television repairman.

Africans, Chinese, and Latino workers who head to the Bright Lights, Big City places like Lima, Cairo, and Joseph Benson's Lagos, are usually making a choice not to do something.  They don't necessarily know what jobs they'll find in Accra, Kinshasa, or Dakar.  But they don't expect to grow cabbage, or tubers, or sugarcane, or cotton.

"Ag Flight".   It's basically exactly the same reason the USA cabbage farms import migrant labor from other countries.  

I've got rural, subsistence farming roots.   Three out of four of my grandparents lived on subsistence Ozark farms, and remained in farming until the 1960s (fourth grew up in journalism, and as a child of someone in the Indian Service).  Agriculture's an honorable profession.

I was told the easiest thing to grow, if I chose to be a farmer, was probably cabbage. Cabbage is pretty virulent, cabbage crops can survive temperature disruptions.  You won't make a lot of money on cabbage, but barring an Oklahoma dustbowl storm, you are unlikely to utterly fail.  As I looked down at my grandpa Fisher's cabbage row, I thought it was the dullest, most boring thing in the universe.

Had Joseph Benson been a cabbage farmer, he would not have been the center of a sting by Greenpeace, Basel Action Network, Cahal Milmo (Independent), or BBC Panorama.  Unfortunately for Benson, he invested in a different job abandoned by white people - one exoticized to titillate environmentalists.

Television repair.

When I inteview Benson and others like him, there is an underlying vague sense of shock that they have been picked out of a lineup.  They know people who are engaged in much worse work.  Kidnapping.  Drug dealing.  Sex trafficking.  Endangered species poaching.  Gold mining (largest source of mercury and lead poisoning in the world).  Dumping toxic waste.  There are a lot of jobs that deserve the attention of Interpol.

But it's as if Interpol had developed a hard on for cabbage growing.  TV repair, like bicycle repair, was much less toxic or dangerous than mining, new TV manufacture, or auto repair.   And according to OSHA and the USA Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is safer than growing cabbage.

What has created this bizarre exotic focus on RepairFAQ.org jobs, or IFIXIT.org jobs?  How did J. Benson of BJ Electronics become the focus of a "sting"?

When I was interviewed by Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition" on Earth Week, I was asked the "tough question".  What about toxic waste produced by TV repair and refurbishment?  It's almost routine now, the reporters and journalists have been indoctrinated that repair, overhaul, and refurbishing jobs MUST be controversial, it's a given.

I know the question was meant innocently.  But it was the "Have you stopped beating your wife" question.  I felt my mind stammer.  This wasn't an allegation of not really recycling, or even about recycling.  An important Vermont journalist was asking about the toxic risks of people doing what they said they were doing - repairing and reusing televisions.

To explain why people in Africa, the Mideast, Latin America and Asia choose to work in the "dangerous and controversial" field of electronics repair and refurbishment, rather than other jobs Americans have chosen to avoid - like cabbage farming - I thought I'd take a trip down the information highway to another yawn-worthy destination.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics.  I started there, while I was still at Massachusetts DEP, planning the first "E-Waste" Law in the nation.  I looked up television repair statistics.  In the previous 1990 census, BOL described 100,000 television repair jobs.  Most were members of NESDA, the National Electronics Service Dealers Association, and home of NESDA-net.

Today, the Department of Labor had combined all kinds of electronics maintenance jobs (TV, computer, office servers and network equipment) into a single category (141,000 employees), but they still have another category of "home entertainment system" installation and maintenance (36,000 jobs).  The BOL and Department of Labor and OSHA have data on the #7629 job class of electronics repair.  It's not without risk.  Most of the injuries are from ladders.  But there are warnings about electric shock.

Home entertainment equipment installers and repairers
US BOL photo showing repair of TV part
What's really fascinating is that the photo of the repair job at the Department of Labor website is a repair of the exact same part which Cahal Milmo / Greenpeace sabotaged in the Joseph Benson sting.

And by "really fascinating", what I mean is boring.


TV repair is not without risk, there are back injuries, exposure to electric current.  But not many deaths, and no record of "toxics exposure" by USA TV repairpeople that I can find on the net.

If you want to find a much more dangerous job, look at agriculture (cabbage farming)... the job that Americans, Asians, Latinos, Europeans, and Africans are running away from.  Some of these deaths are because the "last mile" of infrastructure for health care and emergency treatment is difficult to deliver in the rural areas which rely on farming.   If you want to be closer to a hospital in Africa, you need to travel geographically to the Bright Lights, Big City.

Death in Farming
  • In 2009, 440 farmworkers died from work-related injuries. The fatality rate for farmworkers in crop and animal production was 7 times higher than the fatality rate for all workers in private industry; farmworkers had a fatality rate of 24.7 deaths per 100,000, while the fatality rate for all workers was 3.5. The fatality rate for farmworkers in crop production alone was significantly higher than for all farmworkers — at 32.7.
  • The leading cause of death for farmworkers between 1992 and 2009 was tractor overturns, accounting for over 90 deaths annually. The most effective way to prevent tractor overturn deaths is the use of Roll-Over Protective Structures, however in 2006 only 59% of tractors used on farms in the US were equipped with these devices.2
  • Every day, about 243 agricultural workers suffer a serious lost-worktime injury. Five percent of these injuries result in permanent impairment.
  • In 2010, the injury rate for agricultural workers was over 20 percent higher than the rate for all workers. Agricultural workers' injury rates were 4.8 per 100 workers, while the rate for all workers was 3.8.
  • Young workers who live and work on farms are also exposed to potentially dangerous farm-related hazards. Farm operators who hire youth to work on their farm should be aware of all applicable child labor laws.
  • Approximately one half of farmworkers are Hispanic. OSHA requires that employers conduct all required training of workers in a language and vocabulary workers can understand. OSHA's Hispanic Outreach Module of Compliance Assistance Quick StartSpanish-Language Compliance Assistance Resources, and Podemos Ayudar (We Can Help) pages identify Spanish-language outreach resources, and detail how employers can work cooperatively with OSHA. 

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