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February 03, 2012

Unseen Sweatshops Don't Bother Us

Apple Factory by Mr. DaiseyTHERE IS MORE CHATTER in Ireland about Fairtrade coffee beans than about unsafe conditions in the factories where our consumer devices are made. And I doubt anything in the current dust-up about Apple's Foxconn operations will change our attitudes.

I played audio from This American Life to LIT students in our Applied Communications module because one of the themes of that programme explores worldly views of socialism and communism. Years ago, communist leaders might have set up factories for hand-made clothing. The pace would have been slower than what's in the sprawling Foxconn factories today. Things have to move faster because of pent-up consumer demands. Here in Ireland, we get antsy if more than a year elapses between updates to our iPhones (and Nokia phones that I buy), laptops, or kitchen appliances. That consumer pressure filters all the way to Chinese manufacturing lines where little hands assemble tiny parts. The sheer number of available employees gives little incentive to automating assembly processes. Many hands do fast work. And in Foxconn's case, that means 860,000 hands.

Who Died to Make Your iPhone

Foxconn makes one third of all the world's electronics--not just Apple gear but all sorts of stuff we use to live comfortably and work productively in the 21st century. But as long as we compartmentalise the dirty work into a far corner of our world, we can keep enjoying a guilt-free lifestyle.

Halfway across the world, life is a lot different for hundreds of thousands of factory floor workers who don't earn enough money to buy the iPads they assemble. They work on lines where thousands of fingers move in unending motion. They work honest hours, not the Irish work hours that are punctuated by talking over tea, smoking with mates, and running to the bank (or the shops, or the creche or out to school gates for the kids).

Investigative reporters have discovered incidents of repetitive stress injury that cripple 26  year old people for life. Photographers have snapped the faces of 13 year old boys and girls on assembly lines. Irish Labour politicians can see the Black List from the Chinese Labor Board with the names of people identified as "troublemakers" because they raised health and safety issues.

I believe Apple is the only electronics company that can afford--literally afford--to break with the widespread notion that we have to lower costs and squeeze margins in order to remain competitive. As Tim O'Reilly says, "Their unprecedented profits make it incumbent on them to take a much stronger stand on this issue."

But I don't expect anyone in Ireland to be confrontational about all these issues because it's not our problem. And we'd really like an iPhone 5 before summer, please.


Disclosure: I own two iPod Touches, one iPod and we flatten an iPad's battery every day through hard use. I am a guilty facilitator but should I blame myself?

This American Life Episode 454 -- Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory, January 6, 2012.

New York Times -- Apple's iPad and the Human Costs of Labor in China in the New York Times, January 25, 2012.  Download Human Costs Are Built into an iPad

Molly Wood and Brian Tong -- Who Died to Make Your iPhone? [10 minute MP4 from Buzz Out Loud]

Bonus Link -- Conan O'Brien and the iNett, February 2, 2012, on Team Coco.


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