Your phone was probably made in a sweatshop

iPhone 3
(Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Like any devout follower, Mike Daisey was reluctant to ask questions about his favorite religion—the church of Apple. A self-professed gadget freak and number one fan of the ubiquitous technology company, Daisey’s reluctance is probably familiar to all of us. In his most recent monologue on Chicago Public Media’s popular series, This American Life, Daisy renews the debate about “fair trade” electronics by traveling to China and investigating working conditions at Apple’s main manufacturing plant, Foxconn.

Daisey is the force behind the one-man hit performance, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which showed at Seattle Repertory Theatre last April. Part of the show is about the late Steve Jobs and the other part deals with Daisey’s experiences visiting Chinese electronic manufacturing plants. In an interview with the New York Times, Daisey explains that he was shocked by “the level of dehumanization built into the systems that have been put into place by American corporations in collusion with suppliers.”

But is anyone really surprised by what he found? Should it come as a shock that while hundreds of thousands of Americans are perusing the latest gadgets at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, children as young as 12 are working full-time in China in conditions so poor their manufacturing plants are surrounded by suicide-thwarting nets?

Have you ever considered how the heck that tiny miracle of a phone in your hand can cost just $300? In July of last year, New York-based human rights group China Labor Watch released a report the detailing egregious labor violations encountered through plant visits and worker interviews. The members of CLW visited ten different manufacturing plants that supplied Apple, Dell, Sony, Nokia, and Motorola, among others. According to the report, Apple pays about 3.99 British pounds, or about $6.11, to manufacture an iPhone. That means doubling or tripling manufacturing costs by improving working conditions and pay would only make a tiny dent in Apple’s profits from each sale.

Such poor working conditions seem even more criminal when reported alongside the epidemic of suicides and suicide attempts at electronic manufacturing plants. Unconfirmed reports surfaced Wednesday about a mass suicide attempt at a Foxconn plant in Wuhan that manufactures Microsoft’s Xbox. 150 workers allegedly took to the roof over a pay dispute and were eventually talked down by the mayor of Wuhan. Microsoft is investigating the incident, and has since claimed that it stemmed from “staffing assignments and transfer policies, not working conditions.”

Of course, shortly after the rash of suicides back in 2010, technology firms HP, Dell, and Apple claimed to have investigated the working conditions at their respective plants. Some workers received pay raises—they now receive, on average, about $300 a month—and then stories of poor labor conditions faded in and out of media coverage.

But here we are again. Findings by Oekom Research published in December of last year put technology manufacturing dead last in sustainability and fair labor practices, after mining, textiles, chemicals, automobiles, and more.

Right now, there is no such thing as “fair trade electronics”. But I think Seattle is the perfect place to lead the charge.

We’ve long been one of the most technologically savvy cities in the country, with a gadget-happy population and local tech powerhouses Microsoft and Amazon, both of which have their signature products manufactured by Foxconn. But we’ve also got a social conscience. Don’t forget, it was Seattle that brought labor abuses of globalization into the headlines in the first place when protestors shut down the World Trade Organization meeting here in 1999.

In my household, we have two iPhone4s, two MacBooks, two Shuffles, and an iPad2. We bought them from smiley, enthusiastic Apple retail employees who are paid anywhere between $9-$17 an hour, sometimes with benefits. The bright lights and clean lines of the Apple store can make a person forget where electronics really come from—cramped, cruel places where, for some, death is a better option.

Editor’s note: On March 16th, This American Life retracted Mike Daisey’s story about labor abuses at Foxconn plants producing Apple products, claiming some of the content had been fabricated. The information in this post from Okeom research, China Labor Watch and other sources is still accurate, however, and despite some action by Apple and other tech companies, labor abuses at Chinese electronics factories producing products for American markets remain an issue.

A version of this post first appeared on Flip the Media

6 Comments

  1. Interesting post. Small point, This American Life is not an NPR show. It is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International.

  2. Interesting post. Small point, This American Life is not an NPR show. It is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International.

  3. Thanks for the correction Reader3333! For the official record: this post has been corrected/updated to reflect that This American Life is a production of “Chicago Public Media” not “NPR.”

  4. Thanks for the correction Reader3333! For the official record: this post has been corrected/updated to reflect that This American Life is a production of “Chicago Public Media” not “NPR.”

  5. Looks like Apple has heard the criticism and wants to quell the bad press. The company just released more information on its suppliers and joined a fair trade association. It sounds good – then again, Daisey said the factory bosses know how to make things look nice for inspections. http://apne.ws/zc9YY3

  6. Looks like Apple has heard the criticism and wants to quell the bad press. The company just released more information on its suppliers and joined a fair trade association. It sounds good – then again, Daisey said the factory bosses know how to make things look nice for inspections. http://apne.ws/zc9YY3

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