Was my iPhone made in a Sweatshop?

I love my iPhone.   Despite my love-hate attitude toward Apple, and my distaste for Der Applesführer Steve Jobs, I can openly admit that I would weep if my iPhone was stolen or misplaced.  It’s a device that’s quite literally changed my life and helped me feel more connected to people wherever I go and whatever I’m doing.  I never thought I would fall head over heels for a shiny technological bauble.

Unfortunately, all of that goodness comes at a price.  Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer that supplies parts for the iPhone (as well as parts for several other technology companies, like Dell and HP), is having a suicide epidemic at their plant in Shenzhen, China.  When you read about how the workers at this facility live and work, it’s really no surprise.  Foxconn workers labour 15 hours a day, 7 days a week.  The assembly floor is run with military discipline, and employees are largely forbidden to even speak to their colleagues.  I’m sure the effect of spending your every moment in a complex of 400,000 employees who are largely strangers to you is dehumanizing.  These people must feel like ants in a giant nest.  They wake up, put in long hours in rigid silence, then come back to their company dormitory with precious little time for themselves and very few options with which to occupy their time.   How can these conditions be viewed as anything other than a modern sweatshop?  Most importantly, why aren’t Apple, Dell and HP being taken to task for using parts from suppliers where the conditions are so bleak and dehumanizing that workers are throwing themselves to their deaths?  Steve Jobs has no problems waxing philosophical about the evils of Flash, what is his philosophy on doing business with a company whose employees are driven to kill themselves rather than keep working?

There have been 10 deaths this year as well as an undocumented number of other cases in which workers were unsuccessful in their attempts to take their own lives. Foxconn says they are taking action by hiring counselors, adding leisure activities, and installing nets to catch the jumpers.  While the first two additions are certainly a step in the right direction, they both seem a little bit late.  A culture has already been established in which these workers are becoming despondent and depersonalized.  The powers that be at Foxconn would like to remind us that despite the recent spate of suicides and the ensuing bad press “over 8,000 apply to work at Foxconn every day.”  Perhaps this is more a reflection of the other employment options available to China’s unskilled workforce than it is a feather in Foxconn’s cap.  If your other employment opportunities included working in a coal mining industry with the world’s highest fatality rate or in a clandestine fireworks factory with no safety oversight at all, perhaps applying at Foxconn and hoping you don’t find it necessary to throw yourself out the window doesn’t seem so bad.

Perhaps Foxconn is actually taking measures to improve the quality of life of their employees.  Regardless, there should be pressure applied by Apple, HP, Dell and any other company that relies on suppliers like Foxconn to make sure their products are assembled in environments that are not detrimental to the physical and mental health of the workers employed there.  If they fail to do this, the onus to provide that pressure should be on we, the consumers, by making our voices heard and refusing to buy products that are assembled in sweatshop conditions.  We would not stand for fellow Americans being subjected to such treatment in the workplace, but we will happily snap up products made on foreign soil by workers who are subjected to subhuman conditions.  Is it simply a case of “out of sight, out of mind?”  As much as I love my iPhone, I do feel a little dirty for having a hand in these awful business practices.  As unfortunate as the deaths at Foxconn may be, they have opened my eyes and caused me to ask some questions about the companies that manufacture the products I buy.

~ by schlippo on May 27, 2010.

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