Published on October 7th, 2012 | by Tara Gould
Apple’s Rotten Core: The Underbelly of Cutting Edge Technology
Sleeker, faster, bigger, brighter; ‘the most beautiful thing we’ve ever made’ Apple declare. Due in part to Apple’s clever and aggressive campaign, according to analysts, sales of the iPhone 5 are expected to double those of the previous models in their first week on the market.
But does this blizzard of excitement mask the unsavoury realities behind the phone’s manufacture? An iPhone 5 will set you back £529, but shouldn’t we also be asking what the true cost of our insatiable lust for new technology might be?
A recent story reports on what goes on behind the scenes at the Foxconn factory in China where 57 million iPhones are assembled each year. Backbreaking night shifts and punishing supervisors, 12 hour shifts standing, with only one break, low pay, and squalid, cockroach infested dorms; these are just some of the disturbing conditions described in the diary of a Chinese undercover journalist who spent 10 days on the factory floor.
Such stories are not new. Foxconn, China’s largest electronics factory, came under scrutiny in 2010 when 17 workers committed suicide, and in January this year 150 Chinese workers at the Foxconn factory threatened to commit mass suicide in protest at harsh and inhuman working conditions.
But it’s not just Apple. Foxconn make and assemble products for most major electronic companies including Dell, HP, Sony, Nokia, Nintendo, Motorola and many more. And, it’s not just Foxconn. Most factories in China function like this and most Chinese factory workers have to tolerate these kinds of working conditions.
Another heavy weight company, VTech has been in operation for over 35 years with plants all over the world. VTech factories in Dongguan City alone employ 30,000 workers and in May 2012 the company announced annual revenue of $1.785 billion. Yet, workers stand for 12 to 15 hours a day as they rush to meet production demands for Motorola and Wal-Mart phones, and VTech’s own brand of electronic kids learning games, and cordless and corded phones.
One worker complained about the constant pain of swollen feet, and of the non-stop production line where she would repeat the same mind numbing action of plugging five pieces into a circuit board in 11.25 seconds without a break for up to 7 hour at a time.
Workers are pushed to their limits, for what is barely enough to cover basic necessities.
This kind of outsourcing is not restricted to blue collar work within the electronics and digital technology industries. The retail industry’s widespread use of labour in developing countries and scandals over sweatshops is well documented. Outsourcing now extends across the board to white and pink collar jobs within the service industries. The movement of resources and jobs to the lowest bidder by major global corporations has become known in the US as the “race to the bottom.”
For companies like Apple, it’s not simply about cheap labour, it’s about fast, unimpeded production. Manufacturers in China are able to access increased workforce at the drop of a hat and amplify production in order to meet the launch deadline of a new model or revamped phone.
The rate at which Apple have been able to roll out the new iPhone is testament to this. In many Chinese factories, thousands of workers, ostensibly ‘on call’ at all times of the day or night, can be roused from sleep with no notice. Within days production lines are churning out tens of thousands of products ready to be on the shelves within weeks.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” one anonymous Apple executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”
But it’s not just Chinese workers who are suffering. The tendency of big company’s like Apple to outsource the majority of their manufacture also has had an impact on domestic US employment.
“Apple’s an example of why it’s so hard to create middle-class jobs in the U.S. now,” said Jared Bernstein, economic adviser to the White House until 2011. “If it’s the pinnacle of capitalism, we should be worried.”
When Barack Obama dined with the luminaries of Silicon Valley in California last February Steve Jobs waxed lyrical about Apple and was interrupted by the President who asked him; ‘What would it take to make iPhones in the US? Why can’t the work come home?’ to which the then co-founder and CEO of Apple inc replied ‘Those jobs aren’t coming back’ .
Policy into Practice?
If the jobs have to stay in China, then why not make sure that workers are treated fairly? One might like to imagine that a company with as much prominence, leverage and capital (a net profit of $8.8 billion in the third quarter of 2012 alone) would endeavour at least to improve the situation, not least to protect its reputation.
Apple’s supplier responsibility statement says that they are working to improve conditions for workers worldwide. They insist that their suppliers treat all of their workers with dignity and respect. But it appears that in reality such statements don’t hold much water. Reports are emerging on a daily basis exposing Foxconn’s abuse of workers in connection with the production of the new iPhone 5.
China Labor Watch have recently reported that the electronics industry is failing to take responsibility. It seems minimum standards of welfare still come second to company profits.
China Labor Watch is an independent not-for-profit organisation that conducts in-depth assessments of the Chinese factories that make products for some of the largest U.S companies. China don’t have in place the kinds of worker’s rights and human rights that countries in the west can enjoy, and so organisations like this are essential in helping to educate the international community and pressurise the corporate sector into improving conditions for workers. As a result of the work and the dissemination of their reports some of the world’s most powerful heavyweight global companies such as Samsung, Apple and Dell have begun to carry out audits and inspections of Chinese factories.
So what can we do about it?
One easy answer for the ethical consumer is to boycott Apple products, but then, where else can you go? Scratch the surface even a little and you’ll discover nearly every big company that manufactures digital and electronic technology doing the same. They are all trying to win in the same game after all.
And much as we like to point the finger, or feel guilty, the problem lies with global capitalism and its natural evolution. We could ditch the mobile phone perhaps? Along with the DVD, the TV the cordless phone, the PC, the laptop, and retreat to the tipi at the bottom of the garden? Or we could simply buy less stuff. Resist our craving for more, for better, for brighter and ask ourselves…do I really need that?
In her insightful lecture ‘The Voices of China’s Workers’ journalist Leslie T Chang offers a point of view that helps to ease the conscience. She describes her experience of spending two years with Chinese migrant factory workers and believes that the simple narrative that we in the West have created is ‘inaccurate and disrespectful’ :
“By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets we have rendered the individuals on the other end into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone. Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods, they choose to leave their homes, to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world…“
So, should we just trot down to the nearest mobile phone store unaffected? Surely, there has to be a balance, a middle ground. Ignorance is the real menace. We might not be able to stop the tide of global capitalism, but there are things we can do. We can do our research, and make a conscious decision before we buy. Which companies are the least bad? Which are making an effort to improve?
We can keep abreast of the stories, we can go to websites like China Labor Watch and Ethical Consumer and the plethora of other excellent blogs on the web that investigate and discuss these issues. There are websites which publish rankings on the most and least ethical companies such as Ethisphere, and Raise Hope for Congo exposes the companies that invest in conflict minerals.
We can take it further. We can write to the companies that we buy our products from to let them know that we know what they’re up to, and that we don’t like it.
This kind of public awareness is what might lead, in the long term, to a gradual sea change in the way companies do business.