Manufacturing injustice

As Apple’s website displayed a poignant tribute to the man who made technology beautiful, very few of us spared a thought for those who made his dreams a reality: people like Wang Ling, Li Rongying and Lu Xin.  They are just three of 23 workers at Foxconn, Apple’s Chinese manufacturer, who have committed suicide since 2010.  Systemic abuse of workers’ employment and, dare I say it, human rights have been obfuscated by the lure of the dancing pixels – and you and I are part of the reason why.

While we wait for higher resolution, the workers seem to be planning a revolution. Only last week, between three and four thousand underpaid and underappreciated Foxconn workers staged a walkout at the Zhengzhou plant.  A few weeks earlier, a protest at the Taiyuan factory descended into the mother of all broils, leaving 40 people in need of medical treatment.

This hasn’t happened overnight.  But it’s about time we added our voices to the clamour.  It only takes a bit of research on your iPhone or iPad to find out what all the fuss is about.  As far back as 2006, Janek Kuczkiewicz, director of human and trade union rights at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, displayed “serious reservations” about a report on Foxconn’s working conditions.  And despite token gestures from the company, workers still face what would be termed an unacceptable degree of hardship were it not happening in someone else’s back yard.

Indeed, an audit by the Fair Labour Association revealed that in December 2011, 46 per cent of employees performed up to 70 hours of work per week; Chinese labour laws suggest that the average week should amount to 49 hours.  China Labour Watch discovered in its investigation in June 2012 that workers did between 100 and 130 hours of overtime per month, around three times the legal limit.  Add to this the cramped living spaces (some without air conditioning) for employees and the dearth of facemasks to protect them from toxic fumes in their working environments, and it’s no surprise that the crucible is ready to bubble over.

Xie Xiaogang, a 22-year-old worker at Foxconn’s Taiyuan factory, was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald explaining the employees’ predicament: “Every job is tagged to time, there are targets on how many things must be completed within an hour”.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that proves a hotbed for stress, depression and even suicide.  The link may not be direct, but it’s certainly causal.

But there’s only really one important question to be asked: for how long will Apple and Foxconn be allowed to trample over workers’ rights like bulls in a China shop?  And this is where we must stand up and be counted.  Because for as long as human rights are tossed aside, the costs will continue to stack up: in the lives lost; in the views snuffed out; in the values undermined.  Our technologies may become cleverer, but we will become no wiser unless we make a transition.

For change to come, part of the responsibility lies with the consumer.  The cults of the Apples and Nikes and Googles of this world often delude us into equating their brilliance with infallibility.  But firms that pride themselves on all-round excellence must be held to the standards on which they forge their reputations.

So as you tap away on your brand-spanking new iPhone 5, most of whose manufacturers will never own the finished article, take a moment to reflect on what is actually going on here: our technologies may be getting more mind-boggling, mind-bending and mind-blowing by the second, but that doesn’t mean their inventors should be ring-fenced from criticism.  It’s time for Apple’s consumers to give Apple’s workers a voice.  “You don’t have much time to relax.  In this environment,” Xie Xiaogang goes on, “many people cannot take it”.

Could you?