The right to repair

In San Miguel, the approach to almost anything is to use human rather than machine labour.

A hole needs to be dug? One to four men, depending on the size of the excavation, with shovels or picks; no backhoe or jackhammer needed.

You need some concrete? A wheelbarrow, shovel, one man, one large previously used water bottle and a bag or two of cement, sand and gravel. Who needs a cement mixer?

That concrete needs to be moved to the second or third floor? A large plastic bucket, a long thick rope and two men, one below and one above. Or, if there is only one man, the bucket can be hoisted onto his shoulder and carried up the stairs or ladder to the second floor.

This approach creates employment, is usually quieter than the machine alternative and, while not as fast at getting the job done, is impressively quick.

Repair or replace?

A friend visiting us recently cracked the screen of his tablet. I was able to send him to a local fixer, whose hole in the wall shop is not too far from where we are living. No problem, said the fixer, when our friend took in the tablet late one morning. Come back at 10 tomorrow morning.

Well, 10 am turned into 2 pm, turned into 2:30 pm but there is always something to see or do on the streets of San Miguel, and when he returned at 3 pm, the tablet was fixed and ready to go for a cost of $30.

I looked at Apple’s ipad repair information online: three to five days turnaround time. Cost? Without a warranty, between $249 and $299.

Our friend did well on all fronts to have dealt with this repair here rather than waiting till he got home.

Who would have thought?

There is a political campaign afoot to move us away from our privileged propensity to replace rather than repair. Last spring, Ontario Liberal MPP Michael Coteau introduced a private member’s bill to give Ontarians the “right to repair,” which would have made it easier for us to repair everything from our electronic devices to tractors.

Despite its conceptual populist appeal, it was voted down by the majority Conservative government.

The bill, called The Consumer Protection Amendment Act (Right to Repair Electronic Products), would have required manufacturers of brand name products to provide consumers, upon our request, with the most recent version of repair documents, replacement parts, software and other tools so we could repair our own stuff.

Coteau told the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in an article that appeared in their publication, the Monitor:

“The whole process of companies monetizing the process of repair and controlling the product exclusively is something that needs to be addressed. . . . We do not want a world around us where our access to the technology we build and incorporate into our lives is limited.”

However, this is not a vote-grabbing issue; although both the NDP and the Green Party support moving towards increasing consumer empowerment to repair, it was not a topic that came up in any of the leaders’ debates in last year’s federal election; nor did it appear in the Throne Speech.

No more tractor tinkering

While probably most of you reading this column are thinking about your electronic devices and perhaps your car or refrigerator or microwave, those hardest hit by the corporate move to make home repair jobs impossible are farmers.

As Murray McLauchlan wrote in his 1972 hit, The Farmer’s Song:

“The combines gang up, take most of the bread/Things just ain’t like they used to be/Though your kids are out after the American dream/And they’re workin’ in big factories/”

Agriculture has become increasingly digitized, and farmers – many of whom have the necessary know-how to repair their own equipment—are effectively barred from doing so. For example, as discussed in the Monitor article, John Deere and other manufacturers have made a deal with the California Farm Bureau that prohibits farmers from reprogramming “electronic control units or engine control units” and from accessing “the source code of any proprietary embedded software or code.”

Waste not

Being able to make our own repairs matters not just for the principle of it, but also environmentally. When corporations make repair of small, relatively inexpensive items difficult and costly, it gets easier for us to throw them out and buy new ones.

My partner and I had this experience a few months ago with a toaster. One day, the lever that holds the bread down just stopped working. We tried cleaning it, shaking it, and talking to it both lovingly and fiercely, to no avail.

For a few days, one of us would stand by the toaster holding the lever down until the bread was adequately toasted, but that was inconvenient. Then, we thought we had had a breakthrough: it seemed that, if we unplugged the toaster and plugged it back in, it would work for one toasting operation. This proved to be a short-lived solution.

We remained determined not to throw it out, even though repairing it would have cost more than buying a new toaster, so for several weeks, we kept a cast-iron frying pan beside the toaster and used its handle to hold down the lever. But this, too, proved inadequate, because the person making the toast had to remember when it was likely ready and remove the frying pan handle from the lever before the toast burned.

We considered and immediately rejected giving up toast all together and using the toaster in some kind of post-appliance art installation.

In the end, we capitulated to capitalism: we bought a new toaster. The old one rests in our basement, useless but not yet in a landfill somewhere.

Perhaps we should have brought it with us to San Miguel.

4 thoughts on “The right to repair

  1. The right to repair goes hand in hand with quality construction: if manufacturers knew we consumers were going to repair items, maybe they would make them to last. I used my uncle’s beautiful Art Nouveauish toaster, manufactured in the 1940s, throughout my children’s early lives. When a niece needed a toaster, I passed it on to her. It is still in use, an elegant, sturdy toast-maker, still popping up for breakfast 80 years later.

  2. I’m amazed the toaster was able to resist healing itself in the gentle breezes of your loving appeal let alone the withering storms of your wrath.

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