Apple, Foxconn and the Human Cost of Electronics Manufacturing in China

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-31-2012

The recent uproar about the conditions in Chinese factories where Apple's iPhones, iPads and iPods are manufactured is getting a lot of attention, partly because of an article in the New York Times.

A great deal more attention is likely due to the lead story that appeared on CBS Sunday Morning on Jan. 29, in which a network reporter visited Shenzhen, China, site of the Foxconn factory where Apple's products are assembled.

The CBS segment graphically showed the suicide prevention nets at the factory, it showed workers reportedly as young as 12 who worked shifts as long as 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. It also reported on the death of one worker who died at work after a shift of more than 30 hours. There's no question that these conditions approach the emotional feeling of slavery, if not the legal definition. What's missing from the conversation is that Foxconn builds electronics products for a wide variety of companies, not just Apple.

In fact, there's a good chance that the smartphone in your pocket, the laptop on your desk or the tablet in your briefcase was assembled by Foxconn. If it wasn't, it was probably assembled by another Chinese contract manufacturer that operates in a manner similar to Foxconn. Regardless of what company has its logo on your consumer electronics, it's a virtual certainty that it was manufactured in China in a factory very similar to the one where your iPad was made.

So before we go dumping on Apple for the conditions at Foxconn, maybe it's time for a reality check. As is usually the case, things with Foxconn aren't what they necessarily seem. First of all, while Foxconn does indeed have factories all over China, it also has facilities in a lot of other places, including in the United States and Europe. In addition, Foxconn isn't the only contract electronics manufacturer with tens of thousands of Chinese employees working long hours at low wages. That's pretty much the name of the game in the consumer electronics industry.

Think of your iPhone as you would a hamburger--the meat was once part of a living, breathing animal. Its life was taken so you could have lunch. This is the price for the type of life we lead, whether it's the price that we pay to buy something once living that's now a package of hamburger or the price we pay for a brand-new iPhone.

Your iPhone was once a collection of parts that is often assembled by children who will never have time to play, get a decent education or know much about anything except assembling electronic components until they are too old or worn out to keep working. We bought that iPhone at a great price without a thought of what the social costs are in a country half a world away.

But when we demand lower and lower prices for our toys, that price is paid by someone. If we won't pay it because we can't bring ourselves to spend more than $200 for a shiny new iPhone, then that Chinese child pays it. If we were willing to spend more, then perhaps that job would go to an adult so that the child could live more as child. Or perhaps that work would go to a former textile worker in the U.S. Appalachia region, whose labor might cost a little more.

But the needs of the developed world are such that they must be filled by a massive labor force, and China is one of the few places that has huge numbers people willing to work for low wages with the skills to precisely manufacture electronic devices. Should we pay more for our toys so that these people can live and work in conditions that don't make them wish they could end their own lives? Yes, we should.

But blaming Apple isn't the answer. The problem isn't just Apple or any other U.S. company that has to resort to low-wage manufacturers overseas to squeeze every penny out of the manufacturing cycle so it can make big profits in an industry with cutthroat competition.

The problem is you. The problem is everyone with an iPhone or nearly any other kind of cell phone or tablet computer or laptop or other consumer electronics device. You, by insisting on ever lower prices and ever newer stuff with ever faster delivery times, are responsible for the conditions in that Shenzhen factory.

If it were possible to buy these electronics from companies that provide more humane working conditions, then I'd suggest that you should do that. Sadly, I don't know that it's possible. I will tell you that if I could know for certain that my devices were built in a factory that treated workers with respect and gave them reasonable working conditions, I would, even if it cost more. But the fact of today's globalization is such that you simply can't find out. If you want an iPhone or something like it, then you have no choice but to buy that device the way comes, with all the dirty secrets about low wages, exhausting work shifts and rotten working conditions built in.

In a way, when you buy that hamburger you do have a choice--you can choose meat from an animal that was raised humanely, treated with respect and allowed to live a pleasant life. When I buy meat like that, it costs a lot more, and I pay it. But I can't buy a phone that way. They don't exist. But if they did, I'd pay a lot more to get one.


To read the original eWeek article, click here: Apple, Foxconn and the Human Cost of Electronics Manufacturing in China