Like any devout follower, writer and performer Mike Daisey was reluctant to ask questions about his favorite religion—the church of Apple. A self-professed gadget freak and number one fan of the ubiquitous technology company, Daisey’s reluctance is probably familiar to all of us. In his most recent monologue on NPR’s popular series, This American Life, Daisey renews the debate about “fair trade” electronics by traveling to China and investigating working conditions at Apple’s main manufacturing plant, Foxconn.
Listen to his story here.
Is anyone truly surprised by what he found? Should it come as a shock that while hundreds of thousands of Americans are perusing the latest gadgets at this week’s Consumer Electronic Show, children as young as 12 are working full-time in China in conditions so poor their manufacturing plants are surrounded by suicide-thwarting nets?
Have you ever considered how the heck that tiny miracle of a phone in your hand can cost just 300 US bucks? In July of last year, New York-based human rights group China Labor Watch released a report detailing egregious labor violations encountered through plant visits and worker interviews. The members of CLW visited ten different manufacturing plants that supplied Apple, Dell, Sony, Nokia, and Motorola, among others. According to the report, Apple pays about 3.99 British pounds, or about $6.11, to manufacture an iPhone.
Such poor working conditions seem even more criminal when reported alongside the epidemic of suicides and suicide attempts at electronic manufacturing plants. News broke Wednesday about an unconfirmed mass suicide attempt at a Foxconn plant in Wuhan, Hubei that produces Microsoft’s XBox; on January 2nd, 150 workers allegedly took to the roof over a pay dispute and were eventually talked down by the mayor of Wuhan. Microsoft is investigating the incident.
Of course, shortly after the suicides in 2010, technology firms HP, Dell, and Apple claimed to have investigated the working conditions at their respective plants. Some workers received pay raises—they now receive, on average, about $300 a month—and then stories of poor labor conditions faded in and out of media coverage.
But here we are again. Findings by Oekom Research published in December of last year put technology manufacturing dead last in sustainability and fair labor practices, after mining, textiles, chemicals, automobiles, and more. Right now, there is no such thing as “fair trade electronics”—which is how Apple gets away with paying $6.11 to manufacture a $300 iPhone—but I think the tide might be turning. For three years now, the Western world at large has been lackluster in response to these labor violations while technology companies continue to reap enormous profits.
In my household, we have two iPhone4s, two MacBooks, two Shuffles, and an iPad2. We bought them from smiley, enthusiastic Apple retail employees who are paid anywhere between $9-$17 an hour, sometimes with benefits. The bright lights and clean lines of the Apple store can make a person forget where electronics really come from—cramped, cruel places where, for some, death is a better option.
Editor’s note: On March 16th, This American Life retracted Mike Daisey’s story about labor abuses at Foxconn plants producing Apple products, claiming some of the content had been fabricated. The information in this post from Oekom research, China Labor Watch and other sources is still accurate, however, and despite some action by Apple and other tech companies, labor abuses at Chinese electronics factories producing products for American markets remain an issue.