Working Conditions In Chinese Factories

The average user never really sees the internals of a phone; those of us who care a little more might look through the latest photos from an ifixit teardown. But how often do we really think about the process that goes into making our devices?

I made the assumption that the chips were designed by very smart people with the aid of computers, the construction of each component was done by sophisticated machines, and the human workers along the process were largely limited to final assembly and testing. I was quite wrong.

By now you’ve surely heard of (and hopefully read) the New York Times article Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China. Another good source for information about the topic is Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory. Both of these tell of the horrendous factory conditions in China.

Although Foxconn is the most common manufacturer that we see complaints about, it’s not the only one with problems and Apple isn’t the only company that uses Foxconn (both Motorola and Samsung employ Foxconn for some of their work). Regardless, Foxconn has had the most major, publicized problems, including deadly accidents and worker suicides, and many of those have been tied to Apple’s iOS products in particular. As outraged as I was after learning more about these conditions, I figured Apple’s users would be even more upset, so I browsed some sites looking at forums and comments and was rather disheartened.

AppleInsider published an article called Former executives accuse Apple of ignoring supplier labor abuses that outlined a few of the points from the NYT article. Here are some example responses:

So cowards are willing to make accusations without providing evidence or their manes[sic].
What a joke.

Give us name and dates…. — Patranus

Apparently anonymity means the info is invalid (well, except in the latest iDevice rumors, of course).

….what’s even more pitiful is to blame Apple for a Chinese Corporations[sic] bylaws and worker right conditions–China is responsible for them. — mdriftmeyer

In other words, humanity doesn’t cross borders.

The truth is 99.9999% of those workers are thankful of Apple for their jobs. Their standard of living has increased tremendously since having worked in the rice paddies for a third of the pay. — Dickprinter

I doubt this, but even if it were true, it doesn’t validate the terrible conditions for these workers.

Why? Is Apple guilty of everything they are accused of until we prove them innocent?
Or is it the job the shadowy accusers to bring the proof? — Suddenly Newton

No, they’re not guilty of everything unless there is proof, which has already surfaced and is continuing to be revealed. There’s at least enough evidence to warrant an investigation, and not just of the production lines that develop Apple’s devices. I doubt if Apple is guilty of violating any laws, but laws and morals aren’t always aligned.

To be fair, AppleInsider tends to be extremely pro-Apple and highly focused on the value of Apple as a company (as opposed to Apple’s values). Comments there often focus on stocks and profits as the only measurements of success for a company. So I checked MacRumors article Former Apple Executives Address Working Conditions in Suppliers’ Factories

The sad truth is that we want cheaper products so they use countries with lower wages and worse working/living environments. If we’d all accept a 300% jump in the cost of electronics we could manufacturer everything locally. — AppleDroid

Finally, a reasonable post! The thing is, we don’t need to manufacture electronics locally. Apple has about $100,000,000,000.00 ($100 billion) in the bank, so they can clearly afford to pay manufacturers extra and build in clauses to their contracts with these manufacturers requiring that extra amount is used to improve workers’ conditions.

…news like this sheds light on corporate responsibility being more of a marketing term than a way of doing business. As a company currently sitting with $97.6 BILLION dollars in CASH ON HAND, they should dramatically improve the working conditions and lives of people who make their products, not have an attitude of “well everyone else does it.” While their position is popular on this forum, it’s not right. — theheadguy

Well said!

Looks like the Times is aiming for a Pulitzer. No coincidence that they released the story after Apple announced earnings.

While this is a huge problem, it is not an Apple problem; it’s a worldwide one. The media likes to attach Apple’s name to these stories because Apple stories = eyeballs. — rdowns

I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence. Apple pulling in $13 billion dollars in profit and workers dying, being subject to neurotoxins, etc. makes for a harse contrast. The extra eyeballs can help bring change, and Apple is in the best position of any tech company to make changes.

Americans may not be so inclined to complain about conditions elsewhere when they realize how much more they would have to pay for the crap they buy if everything was like conditions in America. — Undecided

In other words, Americans might care more about money than human lives. Sure, some will, but I think that’s a very tiny portion of people when the real situation is brought to light. We’re talking about the cost of making manufacturing conditions safe instead of working people >60 hours per week in hazardous environments.

All-in-all the Mac Rumors comments were far more informed and intelligent responses than the AppleInsider comments; further, most of the heartless comments were downvoted to some extent. 9to5mac had comments fairly similar to those of Mac Rumors.

Finally, responses from a couple of big Apple fans. The first comes from MG Siegler’s This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things post; the second is from John Gruber’s site (he doesn’t appear to make direct links available).

The post focuses on Apple because Apple is now arguably the most successful company on the planet. If they were, say, the 8th largest computer manufacturer, they probably wouldn’t have even been mentioned….

Does that excuse Apple’s behavior in some situations? Not at all. But there also isn’t enough background here to know if Apple is even the worst enabler of these poor working conditions.

…The fact of the matter is that we live in a world that demands amazing technology delivered to us at low costs and at great speed. That world leads to Foxconn. — MG Siegler

I felt like Siegler’s post tries to satisfy both parties, the pro-Apple side and the let’s-do-something-about-it side. His comments boil down to “Well, it sounds bad, but we can’t fully trust NYT and plus there are probably some other companies that are worse. Also, we want cheap electronics.” I disagree that this has to lead to Foxconn, and I also think it’s likely that Apple is among the worst offenders because they have more clout than a smaller company and a few of the quotes indicate as much. Regardless of who is the worst, Apple is making more than enough money to do something without raising the cost of their electronics, so it’s not a matter of “Is Apple the worst” but rather “What can we do about it?”

Tim Cook responded in a company-wide email. — John Gruber

Either Gruber simply doesn’t care about the NYT story or he fully supports Tim Cook’s (Apple’s) position. He tends to be a man of few words when it comes to commenting on many stories, but he will write more than a sentence when it’s important to him (such as like how he thinks the Android buttons are “broken”).

Cook basically said, “We do a lot and anyone who says otherwise is lying.” He points to the Apple supplier responsibility site, which (even if 100% accurate) still shows only 38% of the companies Apple audited meet the working hours requirements established in Apple’s Code of Conduct. In 2011 it was 32%. In 2010 it was 46%. In 2009 it was 41%. Not great numbers.

The simple fact of the matter is that Apple has been pointed out as they’ve got more than enough money to do something about it and many of the major articles related to deaths and injuries at these manufacturing companies have been tied to Apple. Is that fair? Probably not. Does it matter if it’s fair? No. The point is, awareness of the issue needs to be raised in order to make something happen. After all, when enough people compained about the iPhone 4 dropping calls, Apple gave in and offered free bumper cases. If enough people complain about the dangerous conditions at manufacturers, Apple will be willing to do more about the conditions. Hopefully Apple won’t have to lead the way for technology companies to expect more from their suppliers, but it’s better than ignoring the issue.

About Ian G. Clifton

Ian currently works as the Director of User Experience for A.R.O. in Seattle, WA where he also leads Android development. Previously, he has worked as an Android developer, web developer, and even a Satellite, Wideband, and Telemetry Systems Journeyman in the United States Air Force. He has created the Essentials of Android Application Development LiveLessons video series and has just finished his first book, Android User Interface Design: Turning Ideas and Sketches into Beautifully Designed Apps. He spends his off time on photography, drawing, developing, and doing technical review for other Android developers. You can follow his posts on this blog or his ramblings on Twitter.
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One Response to Working Conditions In Chinese Factories

  1. mianlaoshu says:

    i am a chinese, though i did not finish reading the article:)
    Considerring it’s in China and there are so many facotories where workers are in a poorer conditions, it’s not a big surprise that foxconn has so many problems. The only problem is those facotories have not been given enough concerns…
    there is quite a complicated reason causing this, while the most important is China political system. so you know why it’s so difficult to change the situation.

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