Alvin Soon's Blog

Alvin Soon male Associate Features Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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. 

All Reponses

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Hi Worddrivr.
I can see where your drive for the awareness of consumers fits the bill but "sharks fin" is a finite resource ( until extinction at least)as well as the treatment of other beings on this planet.
Technology companies create a market and then with some very slick marketing, create desire for their products.
We need to eat and being at the top of the food chain is not our choice it's evolution. We don't NEED technology we desire it. In my book that's a fundamental difference.
I think we would all like to see better living conditions for all workers in most if not all fabrication. Having being a union member while overseas in my country of birth i of course have seen the damage they can do. What is often forgotten is the good they do in protecting employees who as an individual wouldn't stand a chance. The work and pressure unions can effect in areas of worker well being, such as safety and working conditions/hours etc is a good thing. Unfortunately unions have become renown for wages conflicts and quasi employer extortion and the good work and changes they initiated quickly forgotten. Although I am far from educated on the subject of Singapore unions, they appear to manage situations quite well and its the question as to why the same "approach" can not be used in China.
We the consumer are far too removed from the people with the power to make changes and you'll have to excuse me for not having much faith in the likes of apple doing anything that cuts into their (shareholders) profit margin. Much like the "child labour abuse" report laid at the feet of Nike in the late 90's , i only expect them to do enough to get themselves out of the media.

Not an ideal world we live in, I think we all know that. Anything that shines a light on these issues is a good thing. At the very least people can not claim ignorance !!!

Hi bigfilsing,

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the post.

To me, it's all about degrees of guilt. Yup, we're not as responsible as Apple (Foxconn's client), who isn't as responsible as Foxconn (the actual company doing all this stuff). But if we've supported any of these companies with our money, I think it's fair to say we play a part.

Drawing from a totally different situation, I think you can find parallels with the shark fin trade and the serving of shark fin soup in Singapore. We, the consumers, have no control over the hunting of sharks. But as long as we supported the product with our money in the restaurants we were also complicit in the shark fin trade.

What we've seen happen though, is that more and more people became aware of the cruelty of the shark fin industry and started refusing to eat shark fin soup. After years of awareness building and small action, we've seen some results - some big functions and restaurants now don't serve shark fin soup.

Hopefully, by spreading awareness through channels like this we can do more of the same. It's the little that I, a tech writer and Apple customer, can do.

Nice piece and i'm glad you didn't jump on the "western media exaggerates everything" band wagon.
However, i don't think the consumer carries as much blame as you make out. Yes we demand but that demand is created by the manufacturers as a way of moving technology forward . Do we need all the complexity of smart phones connected to the internet all time and social media updated on the move. No we don't NEED them but we do want them. Its part of the "i work hard for my money let me decide what to do with it" thought pattern.
The demise of physical social interaction for the sake of "on-line" interaction is a separate issue on its own, but never the less tied into our desire for the latest in bleeding edge technology.
Apple ( as an example) produces results for its shareholders by selling high cost manufacturing low cost. We the consumer don't have a choice in what costs what. Our only decision is something's value to us and its affordability. Nobody is innocent and by all means lay blame but please make it proportional to the actual issue at hand and more importantly on those that can initiate change!!

OT: Nice, I like the idea that you can leave a comment here.. Making writers aware of what the readers think.

chickenfeet91, I think it's not that simple, according to the This American Life investigation, workers who try to ask for better conditions are blacklisted. People probably are too worried about their livelihoods to try.

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