2012/02/10 – Foxconn Suicides, Cheap Electronics and “Apple’s Values.”

Open disclosure: I have bought, use and own Apple products.

I am Not Happy with how they are made with the ground-up bones of human suffering! I’ve posted about Foxconn and Apple before here. And here comes the NY Times which recently published a series of investigative articles that brought (undoubtedly) unwanted publicity to Apple’s unfortunately named supplier, the now-infamous “Foxconn” corporation that manufactures iPhones and iPads nearly the same time when Apple reported its best earnings quarter ever.

In the article the Times reported the May 2010 explosion at a Foxconn plant that made iPad  components which ultimately killed 4 workers and injured 18. Also reported was a later Foxconn plant explosion that left 137 workers injured while cleaning iPhone screens with a poisonous chemical. There has been other problems at other Foxconn plants as well.

Foxconn has long been subjected to many charges of using underage workers and endangering workers’ health with improper storage and disposal of hazardous material. The Times article reported some Foxconn workers standing for long stretches of time suffer from “swollen legs,” exhaustion, stress and living in cramped, prison – like “campuses.”  In other reports workers claim to suffering disabilities like permanently losing the use of their hands as a result of endlessly repetitious tasks. Forced overtime pay is often “missing” from paychecks. Surveys of Foxconn workers suggest that over 72% work overtime hours which far exceed the legal maximum limits, some by 100 hours a month. [1]

While the Apple corporation set a record of billions of dollars in profit last quarter (more than any quarter by any corporation in history), attention was also drawn to the fact that workers in China labor under intolerably harsh conditions during six to seven days a week for an average of $1.42 an hour. The past two years have bedeviled Apple and Foxconn with reports of over a dozen workers (maybe more) committing suicides out of despair and hopelessness. The “Foxconn Suicides” has also deservedly  tarnished the sexy gleam of the ultra-hip, tech savvy market who love their iPhones.

The reaction from this is beginning to take a more visceral form than ever before.  Hackers have been busy with messing Foxconn’s internet data. Online petitions and demonstrations are gaining publicity through social networks. The ominous “B” word (for “boycott”) has been bandied about over the internet, which apparently led Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to complain publicly that Apple’s activities in China has actually benefited their Chinese workers by creating better working conditions within their supply chain operations. “The welfare of our employees is our top priority, and we are committed to ensuring that all employees are treated fairly and that their rights are fully protected.” Can you hear the violins? Cook stated, “Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values.”

Whether this statement comes from a good place or not, we cannot know. But actions speak louder than words, and given the evidence, it seems that the lives of several hundred thousand unfortunate, mistreated Chinese workers do not compete well with Apple’s “values,” which seem to center around generating unlimited growth and billions of dollars in profit. In response to a rash of suicides where depressed, overworked workers leaped from the roofs  to their deaths, Foxconn promised to raise pay raises and more important, installed anti – jumping “suicide nets” around its buildings.

The fact of the matter is this: these abuses (and they are “abusive” as these are working conditions no one in the developed world would tolerate for one second) do not prevent or dissuade thousands of migrant workers to apply for work at factories like Foxconn for these highly-coveted jobs. Foxconn claims that they could hire 3000 workers overnight, and given the thousands upon thousands  who applied during their last employment drive, there is no reason to doubt it. But don’t look for any unionized or collective bargaining to aid these workers. Unions in China  are controlled by the Communist Party, are usually operated as extensions of the management and elite. This is a telling irony that should alert those who equate equal money with Communism. Or within Communism itself, for that matter.

Let’s face it: the difference between slaves and these Foxconn workers is that slaves don’t get paid. That they are paid better than before, or that they are paid in line with similar jobs in China doesn’t change the essence of their servitude. Within every dimension and definition of the word, these human beings that waste their lives building electronic crap to entertain the elites of the world are slaves. And what makes slaves so valuable to Capitalism is that human slaves have only one precious quality to give: their lives. And such a valuable commodity will always be far cheaper to use, deplete and throw away than machines. This is why Steve Jobs sent the work to China in the first place. He knew he could make a killing using cheap, disposable labor to create relatively cheap electronics overseas. That’s the sum of “Apple’s Values.” Apple never wanted to create machines to do the work to create their products. It is estimated that Apple makes a cool 50 – 60% profit on each iPhone it sells. [2] iPads are even cheaper for Apple to make. [3] The only “value” Tim Cook’s company recognizes is that in order to make gimormous profits, it’s okay that life is so cheap to make that happen for him.

But let’s not place all the onus on Apple.Microsoft also uses the Foxcomm company to make components for its Xbox 360 consoles. As Arel Technology News reports:

“Earlier this year, Microsoft was forced to deal with reports that 150 people working on the Xbox 360 assembly line at the Foxconn Technology Park in Wuhan had threatened to commit mass suicide. Microsoft claimed that the suicide protest had to do with working conditions, and was related to staffing assignments and transfer policies.” [4]

A list of companies that use Foxconn reads like a Best Buy Ring of Honor:

Acer Inc. (Taiwan)
Amazon.com (United States)
Apple Inc. (United States)
ASRock (Taiwan)
Asus (Taiwan)
Barnes & Noble (United States)
Cisco (United States)
Dell (United States)
EVGA Corporation (United States)
Hewlett-Packard (United States)
Intel (United States)
IBM (United States)
Lenovo (China)
Microsoft (United States)
MSI (Taiwan)
Motorola (United States)
Netgear (United States)
Nintendo (Japan)
Nokia (Finland)
Panasonic (Japan)
Samsung (South Korea)
Sharp (Japan)
Sony (Japan)
Sony Ericsson (Japan/Sweden)
Vizio (United States)

I’ll bet even money or better that anyone reading this uses a product from at least one of these companies, if not a half-dozen. Congratulations. You and I belong to a not so exclusive club: the Circle of Abuse of our Fellow Human Beings.

As you can imagine, there have been a ton of comments about all this bouncing on the internet. The comments within the various articles and responses have a binary cast. As many that seem to deplore the exploitation of the non-unionized Chinese workers by this quintessentially American corporation, logical justifications (and fallacies) rise up to excuse it. A small sampling:

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive.  “And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”  – Excerpt: NY Times article In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad. Published: January 25, 2012

“I’ll tell you what. Let’s shut Apple down so the 600,000 people in China can all starve to death because there are no opportunities or market for their services at all.”

“Try subsistence farming in a rice paddy for awhile and see how it compares!”

“It’s barbaric. Ultimately the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies – but with us, the consumers. And ultimately we are the ones who must demand change.”

But here’s the takeaway point. Our greatest technological feats and triumphs often must depend on exploiting somebody’s misfortune. There is the neoliberal opinion that sweatshops are an “unsavory but necessary capitalist necessity.” They justify exploitation by claim ting hat there is little choice for the hapless migrant worker destined to travel from the countryside  into the metropolises of China’s big cities. Who wants a future of boiling weeds or getting wet in a rice paddy all their adult lives? By the thousands they are lured into factories like Foxconn because they feel the need to support their families back in the country. One such person who became a Foxconn suicide left this note shortly before he leaped from a Foxconn rooftop to his death:

“I came to this company for money. [But then I realized], this is a waste of my life and my future. In the first step of my adult life, I took the wrong path. I’m lost.” [5], [6]


[1] Beijing Qingnian Bao (Beijing Youth Daily). 7 June 2010. Dissect Foxconn: respect “Made-in-China” human dignity [in Chinese].

[2] iSuppli. 28 June 2010. Apple rides high-margin hardware to competitive supremacy.

[3] Apple. 22 June 2010. Apple sells three million iPads in 80 days.

[4] http://www.arel.info/technology/apple-boycott-urged-over-foxconn-investigation/

[5] Lu Xin, Foxconn employee, quoted in CCTV. 11 May 2010. Foxconn “seven consecutive jumps” incident. http://news.cntv.cn/society/20100511/104838.shtml [narrated in Mandarin, with Chinese subtitles].

[6] Chan, Jenny and Pun, Ngai, Suicide as Protest for the New Generation of Chinese Migrant Workers: Foxconn, Global Capital, and the State.  http://japanfocus.org/-Ngai-Pun/3408



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