The explosion in consumer electronics, particularly smartphones and tablets, over the past 15 years has produced a new frontier in the battle against labour and humanitarian abuse in commercial supply lines. The tech industry’s demand for metals extracted from ores such as coltan, gold and cassiterite mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has long fuelled the conflict there. Meanwhile, tales of abuse dog the flagship products of tech giants such as Apple, Panasonic and Samsung just as they did clothing brands in previous decades.
Dying for an iPhone, by three sociologists, Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai, tackles head-on the unsavoury practices associated in the Chinese factories that produce Apple’s bestselling product. Though probably too detailed and specialised for the general reader, it is an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to explore the abuses inherent in labour practices, both in China and in tech supply lines.
The factories servicing Apple are run by a number of companies but it is the Taiwanese giant Foxconn that is the authors’ main focus. Founded in 1974 by the young entrepreneur Terry Guo, Foxconn is today China’s largest private-sector employer and also the world leader in high-end electronics manufacturing. As in many Chinese companies, there is a hefty spiritual “buy-in” demanded of even low-wage employees, with Guo’s mantra, “hungry people have especially clean minds” setting the tone for a company that has an often Gradgrindian disregard for its workers’ wellbeing. Chan, Selden and Ngai paint a picture of a corporation where social atomisation and isolation are encouraged, and workers subjected to long hours, perilous working conditions and the petty cruelty of internal bureaucracy.
Outside of industry circles, Foxconn owes its international renown to the notorious spate of suicides at its Chinese plants in 2010. Over the course of ten months, 18 workers, ranging in age from 17 to 25 and all rural migrants, tried to take their own lives, all but one of them jumping from the upper floors of campus buildings. Fourteen succeeded while the other four were left with crippling injuries. The same year, Foxconn reached US$100 billion in sales for the first time. The company’s response to the suicide attempts was simply to place nets in front of balconies and close off windows to prevent further occurrences.
In the wake of the suicides, Apple shifted some of its orders to other suppliers in an attempt to avoid adverse publicity. But Apple and Foxconn, as the authors show, remain inextricably linked. The punishing environment at the latter can even be imputed to Apple’s demands. During the global economic crisis in 2008, the California-based company imposed price cuts on Foxconn to maintain contracts. This led to margins being cut and downward pressure on line managers and workers in the run-up to the launch of the iPhone 3GS in June 2009.
Apple’s launch cycles, so eagerly awaited by consumers across the world, are consonant with the gruellingly intensive spikes in production that see workers expected to put in 12-to-15-hour shifts. It was surely no coincidence that the first iPad came out, in April 2010, in the midst of the suicides in Foxconn’s Chinese plants. Foxconn workers also pay with their health for producing the sleek curves and shiny surfaces of Apple products. These qualities of iPhones, MacBooks and iPads, considered by many the pinnacle of aesthetic tech design, carry a physical cost, exposing the workers who polish and shine them to dangerous chemicals and aluminium particulates. The authors say workers have routinely had their concerns dismissed, with Foxconn denying an assessment of workplace health and safety was necessary.
Many younger Foxconn workers have voted with their feet. In 2011, 89 per cent of the company’s million-strong workforce was under the age of 30; by 2018, that figure had fallen to 63 were cent. That has forced Foxconn to make up the shortfall using teenage interns from vocational schools. Though an abuse of the intern system, the People’s Republic of China, while intrusive in so many other aspects of its citizens’ lives, adopts a lighter touch when it comes to labour regulations.
Whatever bad publicity the Foxconn connection has brought, it has not made much of a dent in Apple’s sales, which have progressed steadily, despite being at the higher end of the price spectrum. The company enjoys a brand loyalty verging on the devotional. One thing that might threaten that though is how different the world will be after the current pandemic. Since the start of the year supply chains have already been heavily disrupted and a collapse in demand, both domestically and abroad, has hit China’s industrial economy badly. The post-coronavirus world may not be one where high-end electronics will be so cheap to manufacture, nor might planned obsolescence of the sort that drives the incremental innovation of companies like Apple be so tolerated as it has been.
Originally published by The Irish Times