Sunday, June 20, 2010

consumer electronics and the full cost

A couple of years ago, a worker in a factory making iPhones was photographed being adorable. The photo became quite famous, and it was cute and lovely, what a great time those Chinese people have making those iPhones!

I will never buy an iPhone, as much as I covet one. I want a smart phone so much. My current phone is second hand, from Danni; my previous was second hand from my sister. Before that, I had my phone for five, maybe six years, before it gave up and I could no longer repair it. I am aware that this requires other people to buy the first hand phones, but I'm just trying to use things for as long as I can, reducing my impact as much as possible, and this is why:

12 Worker Suicides at Apple Factory Rock the Sweatshop Supply System: This article talks about in installation of safety nets to catch people jumping, and notes that all those who have committed suicide have been between 18-24 and are migrant workers. It also talks about some of the stresses of working in the Chinese factory system, both physically and psychologically.

Factory workers were later asked to sign pledges that they wouldn't kill themselves, which, I hope is obvious, doesn't really address the underlying problems.

Aside from the long hours and stresses that plague many workers, it's important to understand the issues related to being a migrant worker in China. This doesn't mean they're from another country, it means they've moved domestically to the factories from other provinces.

The hukou (户口) system is a household registration system. In really simple terms, it identifies a person by their province/county, and (again in really simple terms) it governs where people can go for work. It means that if you can't get approval to move domestically, you're stuck where you are. It is a huge factor in migration patterns within the PRC, and it has an impact on why the factory system is so critical. (You can read a bit of a better explanation of hukou in this blog post: hukou system in China)

Some of the things that happen might not be directly related to the corners cut, the sacrifices made, or the pressures exerted; but sitting here in my beanbag, how can I know? Via Chinahush, we can learn that whilstcleaning iPhone screens, 62 Chinese workers were poisoned.
It is reported that the factory manager decided to use n-hexane over alcohol because n-hexane dry faster, and he made workers directly using n-hexane in inadequately ventilated places. The factory has already dismissed him, and paid the medical expenses of the workers. It was reported that 44 workers already hired lawyers to make claims against the factory.
Although Apple is not responsible for the incident, some Hong Kong labor organizations thinks that Apple products are not cheap, company should spend a little more money to ensure a safe working environment for the workers.
Revealed: Inside the Chinese suicide sweatshop where workers toil in 34-hour shifts to make your iPod lists the conditions in the Foxconn Shenzhen factory network; 15 hour shifts, triple bunk beds, 35 degrees inside, bugs, discipline building, pressure to achieve targets.

Recently, you may have read that Foxconn was going to increase wages for factory workers. This helps address some of those problems, right? Sure, if you can also keep the factories in those areas with the wage hikes. Foxconn is moving away from Shenzhen (which is a SEZ, and where the wage hikes are taking places), and up to Tianjin, Yantai and Wuhan, where they can maintain the same wages because of the differences in minimum wage.

Why do you think our electronics are so cheap? Like so many of the consumer goods available in affluent Western countries, we're not paying the full cost. But that price is paid somewhere.

Recently an acquaintance came back from the USA. Restaurants are so cheap! she exclaimed. I tried to explain the differences in labour laws between the USA and Australia, but she didn't really get it. Did you tip? I asked. Sometimes, she said.

She only came to Australia when she was in school. Like me, she has loved ones who have been in/are still in the factory system (though my loved ones were in the factory system in Malaysia). But still, she didn't really get it, because we're so used to this idea that cheap things are wonderous, are to be grasped, are totally expected.

We need these things, phones, I mean, and consumer electronics, for so many reasons, but we shouldn't have to sacrifice people to get them.

Things aren't magically cheaper. Someone pays the price.


  1. Hi Steph,

    What do you think about the argument that the suicide rate at Foxconn is many times lower as a percentage than the suicide rate in China as a whole? (Foxconn has 840,000 employees in China.)

    Here's a link:

  2. That's an interesting article! But the thing with suicide rates in China is that it's important to compare them across industries - suicide rates vary wildly from industry to industry (I can't find supporting evidence right now, but it does exist!), so I would want to see that info first.

    (Also, not to sound suspicious, but that article is basing its logic on suicides _reported_. Given some of the articles on the Foxconn suicides have reported that there has been some attempts to cover up suicides + attempts, I would be tempted to take 'seven' with a grain of salt)

  3. Is it okay to post part of this on my website basically post a hyperlink to this webpage?
    Consumer Electronics