Repairing and Recycling of Digital Electronics during COVID-19

By: Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, University of Toronto, 2019 IIE Centennial Fellow

As COVID-19 began to spread in Bangladesh, I found myself having to stop my field work and instead shift to online-based investigation. I noticed that people had become dependent on their electronic devices as they were stuck at home, and with increased use, this dependency grew. Electronic devices broke down more often, but getting a broken device fixed suddenly proved difficult – businesses were closed, and people were no longer comfortable meeting a stranger and letting them touch their devices. Thus, technology breakdown became a problem for many technology users in Bangladesh.

COVID-19 also posed a challenge for electronics repairers and recyclers. Most suffered a loss of business as customers avoided marketplaces, though an increased number of broken devices meant that for some there might also be a business opportunity. I wanted to understand these dynamics between technology users and repairer and recycler communities in Bangladesh during COVID-19.

Unable to conduct field work, I chose to conduct the study over the phone. I recruited participants using ‘snowball sampling’, a method where I chose some participants from my social network, then took their suggestions to recruit more, until I reached a level where additional participants wouldn’t provide any new information. I interviewed 13 digital technology users, 12 repairers, and 11 recyclers over the telephone with users evenly split between men and women, though the repairers and recyclers – a male-dominated profession in Bangladesh – were all men. I then analyzed the data using the ‘Grounded Theory’ method and discovered the following themes.

 

Extreme Use

All ‘user’ participants reported using their electronic devices significantly more than usual during the pandemic and I found multiple cases where they were using their devices even when partially broken – this is what I call ‘extreme use”. For instance, one user explained:


“The screen of the phone I am currently using broke …and the upper portion of the screen stopped responding to my touch. However, changing the whole screen module is costly and risky at this time. I called one repairman I know, and he told me that there is no guarantee that the phone will get back all the functionalities even if I change the screen. So, I have no other option but to wait now.

But this is also the only phone [I have] and I have to use it for my daily work, attending classes, browsing social networks, managing my part time online business”
Similar stories were heard from others, with many facing extreme use to cope with the pandemic.

 

Loss in Repairing Business

All repairers interviewed reported losing a significant portion of their business due to COVID-19. Though stories differed, common in them was the discomfort customers felt leaving their device with repairers, while repairers experienced discomfort having customers wait close-by for repair. Often, repairers denied service, meaning a business loss. One of the repairers shared:

“Our business is a risky one. We have to deal with the mobile phone parts with our hands. We also have to touch money. Both of them come from direct contact with other peoples’ hands. Moreover, most of the time our customers wait for their device to be fixed, rather [than giving it] to us for a day …. It is about trust. They do not trust us with their devices in general; they think we may steal some parts from their phone, replace good parts with bad ones, etc.

Fixing a phone usually takes some time, and customers generally wait inside the shop while we fix their phones. But in this current [pandemic] scenario, I understand that it is not safe for me to be in close contact with people. So, I don’t want the customers to let in.”

Phone repairers in a Bangladeshi workshop before the COVID pandemic

Repairers working at a mobile phone repair workshop at Gulistan underground market, Dhaka, taken before COVID-19 was reported in Bangladesh.

Repairing is dependent on the trust of customers, but as the pandemic disrupted trust, many repairers suffered financial losses. For some, it has been so difficult that they have considered leaving their profession, as one participant reported,

“With three months of almost no business, it is hard for me to carry the electric bill and rent for the workshop here. If this is how the situation continues to be, I have no other option but to leave the repair business and go to my village.”

COVID-19 has challenged the profession of mobile phone repairers and recyclers, with all suffering financial loss, and many leaving the profession entirely.

Caution in Repairing Work

Repairers still in business also had to take extra safety precautions. All reported using masks and tried to maintain distance from customers and fellow workers, however, Bangladeshi repair workshops are mostly small in size and located in crowded marketplaces, making distance difficult to attain. We were told that they tried to keep this distance, but customers often refused to maintain it and also refused to wear masks. With an uneven power dynamic between customers and repairers, our participants couldn’t ensure safety measures with uncooperative clientele.

Repairers also took care in handling devices. Knowing that devices could carry viruses, they tried using gloves when touching them, but gloves were not always available and impaired their ability to fix intricate parts. Many had to use their bare hands for repair, washing them properly afterwards, even sometimes washing device parts to make sure they were clean.

Despite such measures, workshops were not always safe. Repairers reported that many around their workshops were infected, and though none had symptoms at the time, they still worried, as one recounted:

“I took every measure to make sure there was no risk of spreading the virus. I wore masks, I wore gloves. I even washed my hands and face every time I washed them for prayers. The workshop was cleaned every now and then using disinfectant. However, the young helper at my workshop caught coronavirus. … It took him a month to recover. I helped him financially during this time. He is still weak. … This virus is bad. I have heard similar stories from other workshops, too. You never know how you can catch this virus. If this continues like this for a few more days, we all have to close our businesses and go home. Or, we all will be dead here.”

Some repairers reported repairing selectively; if a customer seemed risky or suspicious, they would be avoided to prevent infection.

Remote Collaboration

Participants also reported that repair could often be done remotely. While some users said they asked for help from friends and family, others looked for help from professionals over the phone or on video-conference platforms, with mixed success. Though men and women both reported being able to obtain remote help, men were more comfortable doing so, though one’s social network and reputation also affected repair chances.

Conclusion

Altogether, COVID-19 has posed a unique challenge in electronic device consumption – especially regarding breakdown. It was not always easy finding repair help, with users struggling to do so. Simultaneously, repairers and recyclers saw a loss in business as fewer customers sought help, with many workers leaving the profession entirely. The way services were provided also changed, as a trend emerged with people using remote communication for repair, and though success in this unprecedented domain might be limited, it could still bring a new dimension to repair work.