Wednesday, 26 May 2010

who's making your iphones?

so there's this really small piece in a sidebar in today's herald about protests against the iphone in hong kong:

A group of two dozen demonstrators protested outside the Hong Kong office of Taiwan-based Foxconn yesterday, calling on the technology giant to improve working conditions at its giant plant across the border in the city of Shenzhen.

The group said Foxconn - a manufacturer for Apple and other electronics giants - should investigate the suicides, which have reached 10 this year after a 19-year-old employee fell to his death at the factory yesterday.

now i think this is pretty important news. 10 deaths in four and a half months is a high number, and you'd think it would have more of a headline, especially considering how popular iphones are. i would hope that most people would actually care about the conditions of workers producing the consumer goods they purchase, and would want to be able to make an informed choice about the products they purchase. that's how markets are supposed to work, or so i thought.

hong kong workers are calling for a boycott, and there are some further details from here:

"The reason we're staging the protest is the high death rate due to some workers committing suicide within five months, which we think is abnormal," Debby Chan, spokeswoman for Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, told AFP.

"Foxconn should evaluate its management style . . . . We strongly urge Foxconn to start a committee to look into the reasons they died."

The deaths, apparent suicides, have raised questions about the conditions for millions of factory workers in China, especially at Foxconn, where labour activists say long hours, low pay and high pressure are the norm.

it's at least good to see this kind of publicity and activism happening around labour rights in china. let's hope it spreads.

ETA: and the response from foxconn is predictable. they're not even looking at working conditions, pay or working hours. instead, they're asking workers to sign letters promising not to kill themselves and even agree[ing] to be institutionalised if they appeared to be in an "abnormal mental or physical state for the protection of myself and others". yeah, i'm sure that will solve the problem.


Anji said...

That particular factory of Foxconn's employs 300,000 people. Ten employeees have committed suicide in four and a half months. So that's a suicide rate of 27 people per year, or 9 for every 100,000. China's general suicide rate is 230 per million people, or 23 for every 100,000. I'm failing to see what the problem with Foxconn is here, considering they have a lower suicide rate than the general populace!

stargazer said...

the problem is this:

But workers spoke of long hours, harsh supervisors and low pay.

A 21-year-old employee from southern Guangxi province told the South China Morning Post how she worked 12-hours a day, six days a week.

"The atmosphere inside our workplaces is so tight and depressing that we're not allowed to speak to each other for 12 hours or you'll be reproached by your supervisors.

Another worker, from central Hunan province, complained that the assembly line moved too fast and she had to check thousands of mainboards for electronic gadgets every day.

The 22-year-old's monthly salary, including overtime, was only 2000 yuan ($300) -- about the same as the US price of a 32GB iPhone.

"I feel like I have an empty life and work like a machine," she told the paper.

Hugh said...

Even if these long hours are unconnected to suicides, they'd be a problem in and of themselves.

NZ Bloggers Union said...


Carol said...

I was curious about the way this has largely been reported, because usually in such conditions with multinationals' use of exploited labour (eg in garment factories) most of the workers are young women.

I googled this a bit, and continued to find vagueness about the sex of the workers in the Chinese Apple factories, with comments and reports of suicides by both male and female workers.

Mainly it seems the workers are very young (thus easily exploited), but there also does seem to be more female than male workers, though this is not totally clear-cut.

The pictures of the Ipad workers here are mostly of women:

There is this report:

“We’re treated pretty well here,” said one worker, who would only give her surname, Chen. “I think the suicides were caused by individual problems.”

When asked if working conditions might have driven their colleagues to suicide, another worker, who only provided his surname, Zhang, just shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

The tour included a large swimming pool near a massive cafeteria, where workers were lunching on rice, cabbage, tofu and beef with red peppers. One worker who was standing near the pool on her lunch break said she had never taken a dip.

“The pool closes too early, at 9 p.m.,” said the worker, who only gave her surname, Wu. “I usually get off work at 7:30 or 8 after working overtime, and don’t have time to swim.”

At a counseling center in a commercial strip with eateries and a book store, a long row of young women in red shirts staffed hotlines.

And this:

However, as things look now — that probably never happened. Sure, the World Health Organization reports 13.9 deaths per 100,000 Chinese citizens in 1999 (with more women than men, which follows the heavily female population in Chinese factories interestingly). But we’d bet that difficult living conditions had something more to do with it.

And this report from 2006 that describes very nasty and exploitative conditions in an Apple Foxconn Longhua (China) facility:

Apple Computer's iconic digital music players are built primarily by female workers who sometimes earn as little as $50 per week, according to an article in the print edition of Mail on Sunday.

One security guard told the Mail that the iPod shuffle production lines are staffed by women workers because "they are more honest than male workers."

This report also says sexual harrassment is one of the problems in such factories:
Last month a report by the National Labour Committee, an American NGO, found that workers at a Chinese factory supplying Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and other brands toiled for up to 15 hours a day in heat of up to 30C. Other allegations about the KYE factory included sexual harassment and humiliation by supervisors.

As far as I can make out KYE is a Chinese chain of factories that does work for Microsoft & other major electronics/computer multinationals:

Along with the students, KYE prefers to hire only women 18 to 25 years old, who are considered easier to discipline and control.

Security guards sexually harass the young women.

Russell Brown said...

It's notable how almost all commentary and protest regarding the Foxconn suicides focuses on Apple and its products.

It might be relevant to also ask who's making your Dell and Hewlett-Packard computers, Sony Playstations, the Wii, the Xbox 360, the Kindle, your Cisco router and phones from Motorola and Nokia. The answer would be Foxconn.