Apple, slightly blemished

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Harsh working conditions drove 13 iPhone workers to commit suicide in China. But the world’s urbane elite have no intention of giving up their status symbols – By Hannes Koch

We are so closely intertwined – and yet so very far apart. We, the purchasers of Apple products like the iPhone and iPad. And they, the workers who assemble the devices in the factories in the megacities of Shenzhen and Chengdu.

I didn’t think about it. I was in a good mood strolling down Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. Now I had an iPhone with a two-year contract – but asked myself with a certain amount of shame how that could happen. The media reports about the suicides of Chinese iPhone workers in the first half of 2010 didn’t prevented my purchase. Thirteen employees of Foxconn International, which manufactures the phone on behalf of Apple, took their own lives – the majority jumped to their deaths from the upper stories of the factory building. Another four survived their attempted suicides.

They were desperate, not least because of the tribulations of their work: terrible wages, sixty-hour workweeks or more, loneliness in company dormitories, and no prospects of any of these things changing. Among other measures Foxconn installed nets on the building facades to prevent more employees leaping to their deaths.

All of this suggests that iPhones, iPads and MacBooks are terrible devices. If the circumstances of their production drive workers to their deaths, then the social quality of the product can definitely be considered miserable.

And yet the iPhone today is as attractive a product as a Mercedes convertible was 50 years ago. It isn’t just a question of design and ease of use. People who use devices from Apple also demonstrate, consciously or unconsciously, that they have social capital and that they belong to a successful, cosmopolitan, hedonistic elite.

In this respect it was unsurprising that among the six-member journalist group with which I recently traveled to China, four used iPhones and iPads. The goal of the trip, one year after the suicides, was to find out if the working and living conditions in the Chinese factories have improved. Both Apple and its supplier Foxconn had promised reforms.

In Chengdu, a city with more than 11 million residents in China’s southwest interior, the Taiwanese company Foxconn is building two new factories. Currently about 100,000 employees work for Apple. That number will soon increase to 250,000 workers. Foxconn founder and Chairman Terry Gou recently told Chinese media that by 2013 approximately 100 million iPads would be produced each year in Chengdu.

For visitors coming from the ordered calm of Central European cities, the bustle and noise in front of the entrance to the site is difficult to bear. At midday thousands of workers jostle their way to the mobile kitchens mounted on motorcycles. Heavy transports with deafening horns, carrying steel girders and containers, blare their way to the entrance gate. Many of the roads on the premises are still muddy paths, the factory is growing quickly, within just a few months one hall after the next is built, and at the same time the Foxconn employees shoot millions of devices out into the market.

Zhao Ai (real name changed) gets a bowl of rice and vegetables for lunch. She is 19 years old and wears a blue vest with the Foxconn logo on its back over her light-colored T-shirt and jeans. Zhao reports that she works in quality control where she examines iPad casings for manufacturing defects. She spends six days a week, from Monday to Saturday, and 12 hours each day in the factory. The two-hour breaks per day are not remunerated. Two further hours are considered overtime, as well as Saturdays. “Each week I work about 20 hours overtime, about 80 per month,” Zhao said.

Too much regular mandatory overtime – that is just one of the accusations that critics have made against Foxconn, among them the organization Sacom from Hong Kong. Louis Woo, a close confidant of the company chairman, made no attempt to deny this problem during a face-to-face meeting. “It is true that China’s labor law allows 36 hours overtime per month and we are taking the lead in the industry to adhere to the 36-hour target, within 2011 through increased hires, the establishment of additional dormitories with the local governments, and the construction of new factories.” Woo was saying nothing less than that working conditions with Foxconn have been and currently still are in contravention of local legal standards – something that the iPhone company Apple specifically forbids in its social responsibility standards for suppliers.

Many employees also complain about the strict, sometimes degrading rules that Foxconn enforces. “During work we are not allowed to speak to one another,” said quality controller Zhao. Other employees said that supervisors had punished them for mistakes by ordering them to stand between the workstations in the production hall where they could be seen by all of their colleagues, pilloried so to speak. Woo admitted that this sort of degrading behavior by supervisors does occur. “It is certainly not something we endorse or encourage, I would not exclude that this might happen given the diverse and large population of our workforce,” she said. “But we want to change it – we fully commit to investigating all grievences filed by any of our one million employees.”

It is certainly urgently necessary, at least in Chengdu. In southern Shenzhen near Hong Kong, in contrast, where Foxconn employs 400,000 people in two older factories, the company has introduced noticeable improvements. This is the location of Foxconn’s hub in China. The gigantic factory forms its own city, with palm-lined avenues, flower beds, benches, supermarkets, dormitories, bars, cinemas and cafeterias that turn twenty-five tons of rice into one-person set meals each day. Catch nets for suicide jumps still adorn the factory buildings. However, in addition to this there is also now a “Care Center,” where workers can reach telephone counselors around the clock and psychologists can assist with work and private problems.

Overall, Foxconn is a company on its way toward civilized working conditions. But even a year after the series of suicides it appears as if all the potential causes have not yet been eliminated everywhere within the multinational, and certainly not in the new factories in the Chinese interior.

European consumers could and can know this. We, the consumers, prefer to ignore this sort of unpleasant information, of course. The retailers and cellphone companies that supply us with iPads, iPhones and MacBooks, also seem not to worry about the unpleasant news. A spokesperson for Deutsche Telekom AG, which was the sole official supplier of iPhones in Germany until 2010, put it this way: “The only critique from customers that we have noted is when we couldn’t keep up with demand.” The miserable working conditions in China have obviously not had any noticeable effect on consumer behavior. On the contrary, Apple products are still selling like hotcakes.

Why is this? Lack of sympathy, indifference, short memories? Certainly. On the other hand, in our defense we can also say, if we want to use a Smartphone we don’t have a choice in the matter. Cellphones manufactured to ecological and social standards don’t exist. The Dutch organization Fairphone is taking the first steps in this direction, but they haven’t made much progress thus far. And the other common brands don’t offer any alternative. The fact of the matter is that Nokia, Sony and other cellphone companies also use Foxconn as their supplier.

Another option is to buy these objects of desire but also tell the company what you think of them. The next possibility to do so is a worldwide day of action for sustainable IT production on May 7. Under the motto “Time to bite into a fair Apple,” organizations like Sacom in Hong Kong, Somo in the Netherlands, and Germanwatch in Germany are asking consumers to show up in large numbers in shops that sell Apple products and to tenaciously inquire about working conditions in product production. While the planned protest by the international “makeITfair” campaign is likely to make an impression on Apple and other companies, its reach is limited as long as we consumers are not prepared to threaten the ultimate economic sanctions: doing without iPhones.