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Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy

Kevin Bales | Random House | March 8, 2016 | 9,162 words

On the new triangle trade, and the surprising connection between modern slavery and ecological disaster.

Posted inBooks, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

Your Phone Was Made By Slaves: A Primer on the Secret Economy

On the new triangle trade, and the surprising connection between modern slavery and ecological disaster.

Kevin Bales | Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World | Spiegel & Grau | January 2016 | 34 minutes (9,162 words)

Below is an excerpt from Blood and Earth, by Kevin Bales, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

We think of Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck as the origin of our iPhones.

It’s never a happy moment when you’re shopping for a tombstone. When death comes, it’s the loss that transcends everything else and most tombstones are purchased in a fog of grief. Death is a threshold for the relatives and friends who live on as well, changing lives in both intense and subtle ways. It’s the most dramatic and yet the most mundane event of a life, something we all do, no exceptions, no passes.

Given the predictability of death it seems strange that Germany has a tombstone shortage. It’s not because they don’t know that people are going to die; it’s more a product of the complete control the government exerts over death and funerals. Everyone who dies must be embalmed before burial, for example, and the cremated can be buried only in approved cemeteries, never scattered in gardens or the sea. Rules abound about funerals and tombstones—even the size, quality, and form of coffins and crypts are officially regulated. All this leads to a darkly humorous yet common saying: “If you feel unwell, take a vacation—you can’t afford to die in Germany.”

Granite for German tombstones used to come from the beautiful Harz Mountains, but now no one is allowed to mine there and risk spoiling this protected national park and favorite tourist destination. So, like France and many other rich countries, including the United States, Germany imports its tombstones from the developing world.

Some of the best and cheapest tombstones come from India. In 2013 India produced 35,342 million tons of granite, making it the world’s largest producer. Add to this a growing demand for granite kitchen countertops in America and Europe, and business is booming. There are more precious minerals of course, but fortunes can be made in granite. In the United States, the average cost of installing those countertops runs from $2,000 to $8,000, but the price charged by Indian exporters for polished red granite is just $5 to $15 per square meter—that comes to about $100 for all the granite your kitchen needs. The markup on tombstones is equally high. The red granite tombstones that sell for $500 to $1,000 in the United States, and more in Europe, are purchased in bulk from India for as little as $50, plus a US import duty of just 3.7 percent.

Leaving aside what this says about the high cost of dying, how can granite be so cheap? The whole point of granite, that it is hard and durable, is also the reason it is difficult to mine and process. It has to be carefully removed from quarries in large thin slabs, so you can’t just go in with dynamite and bulldozers. Careful handling means handwork, which requires people with drills and chisels, hammers and crowbars gently working the granite out of the ground. And in India, the most cost effective way to achieve that is slavery.

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