LAS VEGAS -- Environmentalists dressed in prison uniforms circled a collection of dusty computers outside the Consumer Electronics Show on Thursday to protest Dell Computer's use of inmates to recycle computers.
"I lost my job. I robbed a store. Went to jail. I got my job back," chanted five mock prisoners wearing "Dell Recycling Team" signs and linked by chains.
While Dell company executives gathered at the huge electronics convention, the "high-tech chain gang," members of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, attracted a small crowd outside. The coalition says Dell's computer recycling program is a sham, and Dell is putting prison workers in danger because they are not protected by federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration standards.
"Dell is an environmental laggard," said protester Fred Kirsch, 26.
The coalition also complains that instead of using cheap prison labor, Round Rock, Texas-based Dell could provide others with jobs.
The nation's top-selling computer manufacturer deals with a U.S. government contractor, UNICOR, which employs prison inmates to recycle outdated computers.
Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton acknowledged that the prison labor saves the company money, but said inmates meet all OSHA standards.
Dell's program lets owners of obsolete Dell equipment pay shipping costs to return their computers but they do not have to pay any additional costs associated with recycling in the DellExchange program.
Ted Smith, executive director of the coalition, said Dell doesn't do much to promote the program.
Hilton said the protest was partially the result of miscommunication, and said his company and the coalition have the same goal.
"I think our challenge now is educating our customers about what their options are," he said. "I think there's a lack of awareness of what to do with an old computer."
Victor Ramirez, 30, who uses a Dell computer at his job as a graphic designer for the Chicago Transit Authority, laughed as he watched the protest.
"They'll throw everything in a landfill," Ramirez said of Dell. "They don't care. They're all about the money."
Also Thursday, a new report by the coalition said U.S. technology companies lag foreign rivals in reducing hazardous materials in electronic devices, exposing gadget-hungry Americans to toxins whenever they use computers.
The Computer TakeBack Campaign assigned poor or failing grades to Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Gateway and Dell in its third annual report card.
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