broadsideblog

There’s Blood On Your Ipad

In business, Money, Technology, work on January 9, 2012 at 12:46 am
Not a Mac mini ...

You know that, right?

It’s on mine as well. I’m writing this on a Mac and much of my work is done on on a Mac laptop.

But I have yet to find a way to reconcile where and how these products are made — the subject of this one-man show currently playing in New York City. Mike Daisey managed to find his way to Shenzhen, China and to the vast community/company town run by Foxconn, whose workers who sleep in enormous dormitories, a hive of cement cubicles, required to work shifts so long and onerous that — as I was finishing “Malled” — the company made unwelcome front-page news as 12 desperate workers committed suicide by jumping out of their windows.

Their solution? Nets.

Daisey was recently interviewed on The Leonard Lopate Show, (a daily Manhattan culture-based talk show on WNYC),  and one of his words stuck with me: workers there, he said, are seen as interchangeably and dispassionately as “biomass.”

Seriously?

Yes.

I spoke recently to a smart, wise career journalist, someone who has seen China firsthand from the Tiananmen Square to today; her last visit there was two years ago. She unhesitatingly agreed with Daisey’s assessment: “People have no idea. China right now just wants to make money and everything else be damned. They don’t care about workers or unions or rights. If someone drops dead on the assembly line, there are literally millions more eager to take their place.”

I include reporting on Foxconn and the suicides in my new book about retail because every time we buy something made in so ugly and brutal a fashion, we’re de facto implicated.

We all know who Steve Jobs was.

Few of us know who Terry Gou is, the CEO of Foxconn; this link is to a Wall Street Journal profile, when he was heading Hon Hai — and Gou, then, in 2007, was worth some $10 billion:

With a work force of some 270,000 — about as big as the population of Newark, N.J. — the factory is a bustling testament to the ambition of Hon Hai’s founder, Terry Gou. In an era when manufacturing has been defined by outsourcing, no one has done more to shift global electronics production to China. Little noticed by the wider world, Mr. Gou has turned his company into China’s biggest exporter and the world’s biggest contract manufacturer of electronics.

Hon Hai’s revenue has grown more than 50% a year in the past decade to $40.6 billion last year. It is expected to add $14 billion in revenue this year. That is roughly the equivalent of Motorola’s adding, within a year, the sales of CBS Corp.

Throughout his company’s rise, the 56-year-old native of Taiwan has maintained a low profile. Publicity, he says, risks helping competitors and alienating customers. “I hate that I [have] become famous,” Mr. Gou said in a recent three-hour interview at Hon Hai’s Taiwan headquarters. It was Mr. Gou’s first interview with Western media since 2002, following more than five years of requests by The Wall Street Journal. “We are so big we cannot hide anymore.”

One of the smartest and most insightful shows on American public radio is This American Life, an hour-long weekly show by Ira Glass, which (for non-American readers here) is broadcast on 500 stations and has about 1.7 million listeners.  Glass did a special version of Daisey’s show for his show.

You can listen to it here. It is astonishing.

Daisey did the kind of firsthand reporting that journalists should be doing — and most often do not. He went to Shenzhen — a city of 14 million he describes as looking “like Blade Runner threw up on itself.” Highly unusual when reporting on Chinese labor, he spoke to many of its workers. He showed one man — whose hand was destroyed from making Ipads — what one looks like when it’s in use; workers never see the finished product, he said.

It is something every single user of these products must think about.

Is the only answer to boycott these products? I’m not sure anyone will.

Are there other, better solutions?


  1. Whilst I agree that China’s not the best place to be a factory worker this article isn’t quite accurate in its representation:

    Foxconn employs several million workers in Shenzhen, and while the suicide rate did make national news, it is the same as the standard suicide rate for China as a whole. So it can’t be used to draw the conclusion that it’s working at Foxconn that leads to suicide.

    Foxconn also employed 10,000 HR and counselling staff to assist workers in those factories as the news broke – it wasn’t just deploying nets.

    Foxconn have also announced that they will be making over 1 million workers in Shenzhen redundant over the next few years as they automate factory lines – which will prevent injuries but at a drastic reduction in employment and much needed jobs.

    I live in Shenzhen so I followed this whole thing with interest – and I certainly have no love for Foxconn but it is worth balancing out the “everyone’s killing themselves” arguments too.

    • My perspective — and Daisey’s — is not that melodramatic.

      But 12 suicides are more than enough for any employer, don’t you think?

    • One suicide is plenty, as far as I am concerned.

      Interesting to hear the POV of someone right in the territory.

      • Strangely the other big “suicide” story of the last decade was in France – France Telecom was one of the countries biggest employers. French staff have it pretty easy compared to Chinese workers – low hours, high pay, etc. and yet a patch of suicides made the news there too. Once again the suicide rate at France telecom (who employ a shed load of people) matched the background rate of France as a whole.

        If you investigated most mega-employers I suspect the same would be true – though in Foxconn’s case I think the interest was sparked because all the suicides were at the Shenzhen plant (mainly because Foxconn employees live at the plant I suspect).

      • There is a big difference between workers’ quality of life in France (where I have lived) and those jammed into the 12 by 12 cubes — holding 12-15 people — who live in Foxconn’s dormitories. There is another major difference in the attitude of government to its workers between France and China.

        The point is not to compare suicide rates between multi-nationals, but to raise the larger, inarguable point that many of the Chinese workers manufacturing much of what we now consume are treated like shit. This bothers me and I want it to both others, which is why I wrote this post.

  2. As consumers we need to seek and to demand more information. I don’t own any Apple products but I am looking to buy a new laptop soon. Maybe somebody could tell me what the most “ethical” brand is?

    • That’s the key question….so I guess there are a few places to try and find this out:

      1) the website of the manufacturer (Dell, Mac, etc.) you’re thinking of buying from
      2) asking (I doubt they’ll have a clue) your retailer
      3) try Googling “ethical sourcing and electronics”

      The fact is that 1/3 of the stuff we use is made in Shenzhen…and there is no sure way to know what is happening inside those factories. In Daisey’s piece. Apple refused (?!) to discuss this with him. Not a reassuring sign to me at all.

  3. Hello Caitlin,
    First, thank you for this. I think that it is among the most important things we should be talking about today, (as opposed to which iPhone is better). How we treat the world’s workers who provide the incredible volume of goods that we consume, goes hand in hand with the effects of this consumption on the Earth. I see no separation between these two issues.
    I do have what I think is at least a partial solution and I have consciously practiced this for years.
    I am the owner of an iPhone 4, purchased long after my sony cell phone stopped working fully. I toughed it out until it literally wouldn’t make calls anymore before purchasing the iPhone that I had wanted for well over a year. (I only have a cell phone, no land line in case anyone reading this thinks that a cell phone is not all that important to me). My iPhone 4 will be my phone for as long as I can possibly make it last, regardless of what new cool gadget comes out on the market.
    The same goes for computers. I retired my 4 year old laptop a month ago when I finally got my hands on a used desktop that had the power I needed to do the multimedia work that wasn’t a part of my life when I purchased the last computer.
    In all fairness, I will buy a new system when I can afford it, because this one is on loan indefinitely, and a bit short on memory.
    I also own a 10″ netbook, purchased a year and a half ago for the work that I was doing at the time. I don’t own a car, and walking with a heavy laptop wasn’t an option for my tiny body. The netbook, will probably last for years at the rate that I use it. While I would love an iPad, (having fallen in love with my iPhone) I won’t be getting one. Probably ever since I cannot argue that I need it.
    I consider myself, and everyone to be responsible for what we support with our dollar.
    In this day and age, it is not realistic to live without technology, at least not if one needs to be employable, and I see no benefit to letting it go as it is the best means of communicating about the issues of this world.
    I practice my form of minimal consumption with everything from clothes to household goods. I buy what I need only, and find my happiness in things that don’t have a huge negative impact on this earth and it’s people. (for the record, there are no shortage of wonderful things to do if you make the effort, and they’re all more interesting than shopping.)
    If everyone did this, it would have economic impact… we would have to change how we consume and what we are willing to pay. Jobs would be lost because we would not need to produce as much, but we can create better jobs if we have to. The world economy did not always depend on mistreatment of workers and low wages to survive…
    We created our economic systems, and if they don’t serve to benefit all people and all of the planet, then those systems are unsuccessful and we need to create something better. I have no doubt that human ingenuity and creativity makes this possible. What is lacking is will.
    Again, Thank you.

    • Thanks for such a long an thoughtful answer. It’s good to know others are thinking about these issues.

      The challenge for me, as a consumer, is what complicity we share in the (nasty) production of these goods and, when they are made many 10000s of miles away from government oversight (minimal here but technically viable) or unions or the eyes of nosy journos…

  4. The problem with this area is, where do you stop. You can look at the producers, the massive multi-national companies, who now only advertise and brand market. The media, who as we have got less discerning have got better at telling us we are not loving parents, not achieving, are uglier, smaller… all to sell a product. We ultimately have the control, we buy or not. Any business is in it to make money. Part of the problem is how we hide behind the label of the company.

    It’s not me, the company needs this, the shareholders demand. Do they, decisions are made and no one now seems accountable for the ethics of the decisions.

    Perhaps, we need to start buying small blocks of shares, going to the shareholders meetings and asking these questions? Sometimes you need to be in the system to do anything about it.

    I always answer surveys, with all sorts of facts and fictions, we freely give so much personal information to these people. Then they sell it. Storecards etc, dangerous things. How much do they know?

    I starting to sound paranoid now aren’t I? I should stop now. :-)

    Interesting post though, I’m off to listen to the show about the Ipads.

    Jim

    • Yes! Brilliant idea — buying enough stock to be able to raise these issues in a public forum.

      I have pitched this as a possible story to write for a major market and we’ll see…I would really like to do some more digging and be able to bring these issues to more light and more readers/consumers. I think there are many of us who would like to do the “right” thing even as we consume, but how?

  5. [...] There’s Blood On Your Ipad (broadsideblog.wordpress.com) [...]

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