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You, Me & Our Sweatshop Toys

Yesterday, the New York Times published a comprehensive and damning report on the ill treatment of Chinese factory workers who make Apple products:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

This, unfortunately, is not a new story. Just earlier this month, This American Life did a show on Apple manufacturing. What they uncovered was disturbing, including the fact that underaged workers are employed. An interview with a 13-year old girl who worked for Foxconn revealed that Foxconn doesn’t really check ages, and when inspections happen, Foxconn simply replaces the young-looking workers with older ones (Business Insider has posted highlights from the show).

Two years ago, a spike of nine suicides between March and May 2010 in Foxconn plants drew worldwide attention to the company - there are no official numbers but 17 Foxconn workers are estimated to have killed themselves from 2005 to 2010.

What is new in the New York Times story are the anonymous accounts by past and present Apple executives, which allege that Apple was privy to safety and welfare concerns:

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

The report is careful to note that the same executives say the company has “made significant strides” in improving working conditions in recent years, and that Apple is not the only company embroiled in controversy:

Bleak working conditions have been documented at factories manufacturing products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others.

In fact, a Chinese commenter on the translated version of the story had this to say:

If not to buy Apple, what’s the substitute – Samsung? Don’t you know that Samsung’s products are from its OEM factory in Tianjin? Samsung workers’ income and benefits are even worse than those at Foxconn. If not to buy iPad – (do you think) I will buy Android Pad? Have you ever been to the OEM factories for Lenovo and ASUS? Quanta, Compaq … factories of other companies are all worse than those for Apple. Not to buy iPod – (do you think) I will buy Aigo, Meizu? Do you know that Aigo’s Shenzhen factory will not pay their workers until the 19th of the second month? If you were to quit, fine, I’m sorry, your salary will be withdrawn. Foxconn never dares to do such things. First, their profit margin is higher than peers as they manufacture for Apple. Second, at least those foreign devils will regularly audit factories. Domestic brands will never care if workers live or die. I am not speaking for Foxconn. I am just speaking as an insider of this industry, and telling you some disturbing truth.

I want to emphasize that the source is anonymous and unverified, so make of it what you will. What is public knowledge is that Apple is not Foxconn’s only major electronics customer. So are companies like Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Intel, Lenovo, Logitech, Microsoft, MSI, Nokia, Panasonic and Toshiba, to name a few.

Earlier this month, Apple published their annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, in which they highlighted the 229 audits carried out in 2011 and work with third-party environmental experts to audit certain suppliers. Apple also joined the Fair Labor Association which will independently assess Apple’s supply chain. And just today, CEO Tim Cook sent a company-wide email responding to the story, saying that “What we will not do - and never have done - is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain. On this you have my word."

At this point, I’m not sure which is worse: That Apple did know about worker abuse and didn’t act on it, or the fact that Apple honestly tries to improve working conditions and they’re still as bleak as they are.

But when I say this isn’t a new story, I mean that this goes story actually goes way back. Exploitation, the story of the rich and strong bullying the poor and weak, is a tale as old as history. Third world exploitation and the exploitation of the poor for the privileged is an old problem which has no easy answer.

If we just look at the realm of consumer electronics and take a step back beyond Apple and Foxconn, the bigger picture of labor exploitation becomes clearer and bleaker. The mining of the three Ts, tantalum, tin, tungsten, minerals essential for electronic components, is under the control of Congolese warlords, who use the profits to fund violence.

The city of Guiyu in China is a polluted wasteland, the location of the largest electronic waste site on the planet. The inhabitants of Guiyu recycle the e-waste under dangerous and toxic conditions; 88% of children there suffer from lead poisoning, the water is so saturated with toxins that it’s undrinkable. The average worker makes barely US$1.50 a day. But they’re so poor that they’d still risk their lives for such a meagre amount. Where do you think all this waste comes from?

The whole state of affairs is just overwhelming and sad.

Let’s get real here. It’s easy to point fingers at Apple and Foxconn, and fingers should be pointed. But demand for these companies’ products come from us; their customers. Support for their operations come from our purchases. If Apple and Foxconn share the blame, so does anyone else who has purchased an Apple product. Unfortunately, since Foxconn also manufactures product for other major tech companies, it’s quite likely that anyone who has bought a consumer tech product is guilty of supporting the broken system that sacrifices human dignity for profit.

As an owner of an iPhone and iPad I’m as guilty as anyone else. As long as we worship at the altar of the new and shining, and demand cheap new toys made from sweatshops and war zones year after year, we are all complicit. It's complicated, ugly and no one comes out smelling clean. 

Alvin Soon / Associate Features Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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