For Westerners, the conditions are shocking. Workers slave away for hours on end, pulling overtime, until their legs swell or they suffer from crippling disabilities.
Our iPhones and game electronics are made by hand, probably because it's cheaper to pay a worker in China to fit, solder, and polish products than it would be to create a robot dedicated to the task. Moreover, that steady stream of redesigns would be costly—or impossible.
Yet, it's not just the cheap wages. It's the tiny dormitories stuffed with people, the cameras tracking their every moment, a State government that imprisons people for joining unions, and, according to The New York Times, banners in the factories that read, "Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow."
Former Apple supply manager Jennifer Rigoni asked The New York Times, "What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?"
Foxconn runs an entire ecosystem that's designed with one purpose in mind: make electronics quickly and cheaply for foreign clients like Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo for you and me to buy. Your iPhone, your Wii, your Xbox 360, and your PS3 are all made at Foxconn factories. But do these foreign clients really care? Do you?
With the increased focus on Foxconn and its work practices, its foreign clients, the Apples of the world, are becoming more open about their relationship with their suppliers.
Apple released a detailed report earlier this month (viewable here) in which the company openly discussed working conditions and its on site audits. Nintendo and Microsoft have corporate responsibility statements of their own (viewable here and here). However, as this recent New York Times article underscores, Apple has gotten most of the attention and public outcry regarding work conditions at Foxconn's plants. This is due to several incidents on Foxconn's Apple product lines, including an explosion that killed two.
The explosion was caused by aluminum dust, inadequate protection, and poor ventilation. One activist group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, videotaped Foxconn workers covered in aluminum dust, The New York Times reported, and sent a copy to Apple. "There was no response," said the group's Debby Chan Sze Wan. "A few months later I went to Cupertino, and went into the Apple lobby, but no one would meet with me. I've never heard from anyone from Apple at all." The explosion, later blamed on aluminum dust build up, killed 2 and injured at least 16 others. Foxconn later replaced the ventilation at this factory.
"Workers' welfare has nothing to do with their interests."
"Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost," Li Mingqi told The New York Times. Mingqi is a former Foxconn manager who worked at this plant who is currently suing Foxconn over unfair dismissal. "Workers' welfare has nothing to do with their interests."
One former Apple executive said that Apple has known about the labor abuses for years—and that they're still going on.
The people running these companies are not heartless monsters. Once, an insider at a major electronics company once told me that they do care—that the moment people began jumping off en massé from Foxconn factory rooftops, a team was on a plane to China to figure out what exactly was happening. I do believe that they care. They also care about their bottom line and staying in business. Why give up a 20 percent margin to make products in a country with labor laws and decent wages when China is so inviting, so accommodating? Try calling an American factory at midnight to revamp your iPhone 4 screens.
There are other stories, stories of underage workers, and stories of workers becoming injured and disfigured, even, while making Apple products. Apple, in its recent suppliers report, stated it was auditing factories. Yet, as The New York Times pointed out, half of the suppliers Apple audited continue to violate the code of conduct every single year. And Apple continues to do business with these companies.
And so does Nintendo. And so does Microsoft. And so does Sony. And so do a whole bunch of companies. If Apple is being this open about its suppliers and how it is addressing work infractions, imagine how bad conditions at on the other supply lines.
"You're forcing them to cut safety."
The reason why many of these infractions, the health hazards and the grueling overtime, take place is due to zero oversight and foreign clients trying to award contracts on the slimmest profit margins. "You can set all the rules you want, but they're meaningless if you don't give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well," a former Apple exec told The New York Times. "If you squeeze margins, you're forcing them to cut safety." Making the iPhone in the U.S., in comparison, would add $65 to each phone. I'd pay that, but then again, nobody's ever asked me if I wouldn't. However, somebody probably did ask the corporate boards running these companies.
With China's wages rising and the costs of business going up, the country is increasingly becoming a less attractive place to do business. But for electronics companies, the treadmill to hell Foxconn offers makes it possible to churn out product after product, year after year.
Foxconn's Xbox workers threatening mass suicide.
"You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards," a current Apple executive told The New York Times. "And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."
For those on the outside, China is just some place that's stamped on everything produced. Those workers are anonymous and faceless, separated by culture and language. They are the other, and this is slave labor. Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are slave owners. So am I. And, if you own any of their products, so are you.
When a hundred workers on the Xbox line threatened to commit mass suicide over a contract dispute, Microsoft issued this statement to Kotaku: "Due to regular production adjustments, Foxconn offered the workers the option of being transferred to alternative production lines or resigning and receiving all salary and bonuses due, according to length of service. After the protest, the majority of workers chose to return to work. A smaller portion of those employees elected to resign."
What happened to those workers? Are they actually back on the job?
What happened to those workers? Did they get mental health checks? Are they actually back on the job, only weeks after threatening suicide? Microsoft's first Supplier Standard is "Fair wages and health benefits"; are these workers getting mental health disability? If a hundred workers at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters, imagine the outcry. In China, these are just factory workers. They're nameless. They can be replaced. Who cares, right?
These companies shipped jobs to China, but they didn't include the same standards they have for employees back home. Why should they? This isn't their company. It's just a supplier. This isn't their country. It's just some place with lax labor laws. These aren't their employees. They're just nameless workers. Or as Foxconn chairman Terry Gou said, "animals".
We're all to blame, but some of us more so. Way more so.
(Top photo: Kin Cheung | AP)