High stress, high security: the price of an iPhone made in China
The problem, Li believes, is that the workers are coming from all over China, are required to work 10-hour day and night shifts with little rest, low wages, very strict factory rules on behaviour and verbal and physical abuse by guards.
“These workers must be treated with respect. And both Apple and Foxconn, with billions of dollars in profits every year, have both a legal and ethical obligation to uphold the rights of these workers,” says Li.
Opinion: My Apple, my ethics
At the launch of the iPhone 5, a few weeks ago, Apple’s head, Tim Cook, introduced the customary product video, part of a ritual in which executives sit against a white background and talk about the latest product in awestruck tones. As Apple’s design guru, Jony Ive, discussed the precision required to manufacture them, we saw clips of the production line, with cases being polished and lenses being pieced together. But, tellingly, the arms positioning the components belonged to robots, not to Chinese workers. It was an elegant elision, giving the impression that these pocket-sized computers are made in futuristic laboratories.
In reality, they are effectively hand-made, albeit by hands working on a vast production line. And it’s a production line unlike anything acceptable in the West; stories of mass suicides, gruelling hours and, this week, riots are unimaginable in a world of workers’ rights.
It’s a reality that should discomfort, at the very least, all who use these devices. I got my first Apple laptop, a graphite-and-white clamshell design classic, more than a decade ago. I never had to think about where it was made, never had to worry about the conditions at the factory where it was assembled, never had to feel guilty about exploiting the workers who put it together.
At the turn of the millennium, Apple made its products in Cork and California, where we could be pretty sure staff were getting an honest wage for working in reasonable conditions. The transformation of Apple’s fortunes since then has coincided with a transformation of the electronics industry’s supply chain to a mostly Asian-based manufacturing process. This outsourcing to developing countries and its attendant decline in workers’ rights illustrate a far more worrying truth about the increasingly globalised economy.
The scrutiny that comes with being the world’s most valuable company means Apple is now seen as emblematic of the problems inherent in a globalised supply chain. But I’m worried that the attention on Foxconn and Apple is more convenient scapegoating than honest reckoning about our complicity in exploitation. You can’t be indignant with Apple for profiting from cheap labour without being indignant about China’s rapid economic growth and, worse, the widespread respect for it.
Ultimately, this reflects a world where most western consumers live in wilful ignorance, never allowing themselves to be concerned whether their coffee comes from fairly treated farmers or their chocolate comes from ethically sourced cocoa, never mind the conditions of the workers assembling their trainers or gadgets on the other side of the world.
Developing countries can benefit from the outsourcing of manufacturing. But if we care about Chinese workers, rather than merely about our sense of guilt at enjoying the fruits of their labours, we must export not only our production needs but also the employment standards and workers’ rights that activists spent so long striving for here in the West.
Pressuring Apple to ensure the highest standards in its supply chain is an important step. But we must not think it’s any more than a first step.