Before you buy another IPhone, or any IPhone if you are a first purchaser, read this article about almost a dozen suicides at the company in China that makes IPhones. The article is dated September 9, 2010, and the horror it describes happened in August 2010, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. And the only reason I heard about it now is because I am on TechRepublic‘s mailing list. The company’s initial public response to the events of August 2010 was, in the words of the author of the TechRepublic piece, “perhaps the most shocking, reactionary corporate act” I have ever heard about (the even earlier internal responses were equally shocking). The company has now responded more appropriately, but it’s still shocking because, as Toni Bowers writes:

Now, here’s where I get cynical. Why was the public relations strategy needed? Because Foxconn’s partners–Apple, IBM, Cisco, Microsoft–might try to distance themselves from Foxconn in light of the suicides? And by “distance” I mean take their business elsewhere? Absolutely.

Obviously, one of the takeaways from this story is that it’s almost certainly not limited to this one company, in China or in any other of the many countries that provide dirt cheap labor for U.S. corporations. What am I suggesting? I’m suggesting that you think about it. What conclusions you reach after that are up to you.

Kathy Kattenburg
Sort by:   newest | oldest
PATRICK EDABURN, Assistant Editor
Editor

A very compelling story.

Personally I’ve never had the income to afford an iPhone but this does remind of the cost of slave labor in China.

adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
Kathy, It is an interesting article (I admit to skipping over the biographical parts to focus on the issue at hand). I haven’t reached any conclusions yet, but here are the questions that it raises for me: 1) I’m not sure how we reconcile our labor standards with our import policy. It seems inconsistent to say to companies that they must pay a certain amount and give certain benefits and working conditions if their product is made in the US, but if they import their product, then the working conditions are just determined by apparently loosely enforced company policies. Now,… Read more »
DLS
Guest
DLS
5 years 4 months ago
It’s not as awful as what’s happening in China*, but also take a look, if you haven’t already (this was news in 2010), at what some companies are doing here in the USA — stuff they couldn’t get away with in Europe. http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/09/01/us-european-corporate-hypocrisy Ikea’s Factory Churns Out Unhappy Workers A union-organizing battle hangs over the Ikea plant in Virginia. Workers complain of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace, mandatory overtime and racial discrimination. http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ikea-union-20110410,0,5341610.story Ikea Not Alone In Its Labor Troubles in the U.S. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2011/04/ikea-not-alone-in-its-american-troubles.html * which is why I was reluctant to agree with Ron Beasley about the growth of… Read more »
DLS
Guest
DLS
5 years 4 months ago
Adeline’s Dad wrote: 1) It seems inconsistent to say to companies that they must pay a certain amount and give certain benefits and working conditions if their product is made in the US, but if they import their product, then the working conditions are just determined by apparently loosely enforced company policies. […I]t seems to me that whatever we decide are appropriate minimum standards for American workers should apply to imports also. 2) The idea of spending the majority of every day performing some mindless, trivial, and repetitive task seems almost inhuman to me, although maybe that is an elitist… Read more »
JSpencer
Guest
JSpencer
5 years 4 months ago

Don’t have an iphone and don’t want one. Definitely wouldn’t get one knowing what I do about working conditions where the displays are made. I agree with you Kathy, there isn’t anything particularly complicated about human rights. Either it matters to you or it doesn’t. All the parsing and rationalizing misses the greater point.

adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
Kathy, The hesitancy of my response is a result of your admonition that we think about this, which I interpreted that to be as opposed to reaching a knee-jerk conclusion. There is no qualification to the question I raised. I do believe that there is a minimum standard that should be applied to working conditions (compensation I believe is a separate matter, but I don’t know if we want to get into that). My question is why do we apply a different standard to the workers behind products that we import? It seems to me that we shouldn’t, but if… Read more »
adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
DLS, Imposing a tariff I don’t think addresses the problem for several reasons: 1) It doesn’t distinguish between companies that have better working conditions than others. If all imports from that country are charged the same tariff, what’s the incentive for one company to improve conditions? 2) It can be used as a justification to keep conditions the way they are: “If you’re going to charge us a tariff, we have to keep labor costs low to make up for it.” 3) I don’t see why we can’t do the more straight-forward approach: If you are a company that imports… Read more »
roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago
In theory, I am obviously in the camp of labor rights. However, I’m not sure if I missed it, but I read the whole article, and I really didn’t see anything that bad in there, with the exception of the one production team that was looking for better protection from the fumes. One person complained about the water being turned off at her company-provided housing, but I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere where that never happened. I couldn’t tell from the article if that was a regular thing, but it seemed like it just happened once. 12 hour days… Read more »
PATRICK EDABURN, Assistant Editor
Editor

Certainly agreed compensation is a big issue.

But there is an argument to be made regarding wages and living costs.

Here in the US you will find wages in NYC to be higher in general than wages in Omaha because the cost of living is higher.

If you paid a worker in Omaha the same as NYC that worker would be by local standards wealthier than the one in NYC

And of course that extends to an even greater degree in NYC vs 3rd world.

So to what degree should that be factored in ?

tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago
When I read the Bloomberg article…and I thank Kathy for bringing it our attention…my response was very similar to Roro’s. As a percentage of total workforce, the suicide numbers aren’t all that steep, though there was a spike in one month. I also found little in the unsupervised interviews that really caused me to jump up and say “Oh, my god.” The fact that unsupervised interviews were allowed/encouraged tells me this is not sweat shop, slave labor. To asses this realistically, it seems to me we need to have the vision to put it in the context of China. In… Read more »
slamfu
Guest
slamfu
5 years 4 months ago
How could you possibly enforce any law regarding how workers are treated in China? Please remember that when we are talking about international trade, like the deficit and whatnot, we are talking about purchases made by free citizens, not the US gov’t. People seem to talk about the flow of goods like its a check written by the country as a whole. Its not, its so and so ordering stuff, Wal-mart may fill a container ship with cheap desk fans but a lot of small businesses buy stuff from overseas too. How do you regulate whether something was produced according… Read more »
PATRICK EDABURN, Assistant Editor
Editor

Kathy,

I know, and as I indicated these kinds of conditions are deplorable and I’m not excusing them.

I was merely opening a 2nd line of debate, as to what degree they would need to improve conditions/wages/etc to be up to a level we would generally consider acceptable.

I have had debates where people insist that the workers in 3rd world should get US living wage salaries so I thought I’d toss the topic out.

Believe it or not we are close on this topic.

Pat

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago

Kathy, almost every large company has a PR firm. That doesn’t mean that they are automatically bad. If the company is imposing awful working conditions, then yes, absolutely we — the consumer, the customer — should do everything in our power to insist on better conditions. But failing evidence that that is actually happening, I can’t really say…

tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago
My Dear Ms. Kattenburg, Unfortunately, this new comment system and the way it times out prevents expounding in depth, thus my prior comment was abbreviated. It was not simply the unsupervised interviews, but a number of factors. People sought jobs there when other jobs were available. People could make enough money (by Chinese standards) to save for purpose of opening their own businesses within a few years, $44 off site housing out of $176 take home pay is a ratio equivalent to many American households. I did see that some supervisors and managers were poorly trained and yelled at employees.… Read more »
adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
Lots of questions to address and so little time. slamfu, I’ll attempt to address your question when I have more time, but yes obviously the US can’t dictate Chinese labor conditions. I’m suggesting that when a company like Apple buys parts from a Chinese company, Apply should be legally responsible that the working conditions at that company meet US standards. The US can apply that standard to Apple and doesn’t need to try to regulate Chinese labor directly, which it can’t of course. As for products bought from China by consumers directly, that is still an import and the US… Read more »
tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

This new comment system also impedes editing. “of site housing” in my prior comment would have been edited to “off site housing” had the system allowed.

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago

tidbits, just an aside, I think those $44 were *given* to the workers in liue of providing the free-onsite housing that others were receiving. I could be wrong in how I read that, but I know that certain companies do provide housing for their workers so as to attract workers away from their rural hometowns, for example.

tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

You’re correct, roro. If I may, I amend my prior comments to reflect your clarification. Thank you for pointing that out.

casualobserver
Guest
casualobserver
5 years 4 months ago
AD, your ethical nobility is admirable, but pragmatically unworkable. There have been a number of studies on how to deal with this (University of Maryland being the last one I read) and some common conclusions usually emerge. The studies always find demand to be inelastic over the issue of poor working conditions (as evidenced by the mournful comments above), but highly elastic relative to any increase in price. Simple translation, everyone bemoans the conditions, but not enough will pay the price increase to remediate. The example above is also poor because relatively few US companies fully control the food chain… Read more »
slamfu
Guest
slamfu
5 years 4 months ago
Well Kathy, I’m not being naive. I know exactly what they would do, the same thing companies did when we unionized here. They would bring in thugs to kill, beat and terrorize the union organizers. I’m not trying to imply it would be easy, it would be bloody as hell, and its also very unlikely to happen anytime soon, but until they do it nothing is really going to change. Just stating the fact. I do find it funny that conditions for workers in China are very similar to the conditions that spawned communism in the first place. The next… Read more »
tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Fair enough, Kathy. If employment conditions are the cause of suicide, there is a problem that demands correction.

It’s just been so long since I’ve had the opportunity to call you My Dear Ms. Kattenburg. :)

Whatever our interpretations [and I note that you did not call it slave labor], I applaud you for opening a lively discussion on a worthy topic.

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago
Your nobility as CEO will likely bankrupt your shareholders faster than you can change worldwide working conditions, but good luck to your endeavor. Oh for goodness sake casual. When my company can’t sell a product at a price people will pay without subjecting our workers and our subcontractor’s and vendor’s workers to substandard conditions, we don’t make the product. If you have laws in place, and you have ethical standards of supply chain, there’s nothing that says that you can’t just *not* make the product. It sucks to do that, as it generally means that your company eats all the… Read more »
adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
CO, As I told Kathy, I’m talking about government policy here, not corporate policy. Aside from some niche markets, I don’t expect corporations to voluntarily adhere to the standard that I’m suggesting. You are correct to say that we, as consumers, don’t like poor working conditions but are generally averse to paying extra to solve the problem. That’s why there does seem to be a need for government intervention to address the issue that we agree needs to be addressed but are unwilling to assume the cost for individually. That’s the whole point of working condition laws to begin with,… Read more »
DLS
Guest
DLS
5 years 4 months ago

Adeline’s Dad wrote:

If you are a company that imports something, it is your responsibility to make sure the workers that produced it adhere to US working condition standards. If they don’t and you are found in violation, the law will treat you the same as if you they were your workers in the US.

How do the employers here ensure compliance there with US law?

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago

How do the employers here ensure compliance there with US law?

Supplier audits. 3rd party audits. Self-audits. If your supplier won’t let you audit, or won’t show you the audit a third party did, and won’t even self-audit for compliance to whatever are the industry standards, my suggestion is not to buy from them.

DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist
Editor

dear tidbits, I fixed the of to off for you in your comment.

archangel/ dr.e

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago
BTW, there are many smaller companies that can’t really afford to conduct these sorts of audits, or only use off-the-shelf parts, or are too small a buyer from the supplier such that the supplier would have a compelling reason to allow auditors. Companies like Apple and Dell are not among them. Lots of cash, plus tons of custom-made, customer-specific parts, and huge volume. There’s no reason on Earth that they should not be auditing their suppliers for at least 5 different types of compliance already; if they aren’t auditing for adherence to some standard of working conditions, I’d actually be… Read more »
tidbits
Guest
5 years 4 months ago

Thanks, Archangel.

Z

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago
This, I can agree with We might not agree that this article shows a clear case of poor working conditions, but the idea that the only way to keep from going bankrupt is to lead your company to buying from companies that employ crappy work standards or a dangerous work environment is just silly, and goes against every good business ethic. Not only is such a stance unethical, but it’s also just plain wrong. Labor is really not a very big portion of your cost in almost all products if you set your line up right. There are reasons to… Read more »
casualobserver
Guest
casualobserver
5 years 4 months ago
And if you could offer more facts than theories, I might be more impressed. But, it ain’t happening in the real world to any significant degree or it would be evident. For every pair of sneakers Tom ‘s Shoes sells, Florscheim sells 500 made somewhere south of New Mexico. For every dress Kathy Lee Gifford moves out of a sweatshop, Macy’s sells 1000 from an Indonesian garment factory. It may not be slave labor, but it is low cost labor and the workers aren’t complaining. I haven’t read any annual reports where investment in world social policy is offered as… Read more »
adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago

CO,

I never made any claim about the politics of my suggestion, and I just conceded they may not be favorable and also that practically speaking there would be some complications to implementing my suggestion. I also never suggested tariffs and in fact argued against them in an earlier comment. If you’re not going to bother reading my comments, I’m not going to bother responding to your hypotheticals.

What is your solution to the uneven labor requirements between US and our trading partners?

adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago
Kathy, Since the thread has slowed down a little I’ll try to address the issue of compensation vs. workplace conditions as human rights issues. I don’t expect to convince you, of course. To restate: I do believe providing for minimum workplace conditions is a human rights issue, but compensation is not. Here’s why I draw the distinction: 1) To say that someone has a right to a certain compensation implies that they also have the right to be employed. I don’t think such a right can be extended in a free society. We would either need to create an unlimited… Read more »
roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago
And if you could offer more facts than theories, I might be more impressed. You assume I can’t? Well, CO, I’ve got a graduate degree in the subject, and am part of a company that does it better than maybe anywhere in the world (including Toyota, thank you very much), so facts I got. When I do consulting work for my suppliers, my company charges just astronimical prices for me to do so. And no, it’s not being done to the extent that it should. The companies whose CEOs go to exploitation instead of going through the work to set… Read more »
adelinesdad
Guest
adelinesdad
5 years 4 months ago

Kathy,

So, are you saying that the people who work in the factory in the article are essentially forced to work there (in the sense that they don’t have a meaningful choice not to). In that case, I better buy some iPhones because if I don’t and that company goes out of business, what will those workers do if they had no other options to choose from.

(My question mark key is not working, but I trust you can figure out where they would have gone.)

ShannonLeee
Guest
ShannonLeee
5 years 4 months ago

I know this comment is a bit out of the current debate, but…

It isn’t just iPhones…it is everything. And not just mass production, but also standard of living for everyone in China. This is part of a much much larger problem in China. The ruling class has been using the slave class to become billionaires for quite some time now. 95% of China is still a third world country.

Anytime you buy anything made in China…you are contributing to the problem.

roro80
Guest
roro80
5 years 4 months ago

ShannonLee — that’s not really true. There are lots of really good, modern factories in China that treat their workers well. There are a lot that don’t, of course, and we should be all over being more diligent about our imports, but just because something is made in China doesn’t mean it’s made by slave labor. Same goes for Indonesia.

DLS
Guest
DLS
5 years 4 months ago

Casual Observer wrote:

For every pair of sneakers Tom ‘s Shoes sells, Florscheim sells 500 made somewhere south of New Mexico.

It’s amusing you wrote this, because I was keeping quiet earlier about it, but I was thinking —

Will Steve Jobs face as much criticism as Phil Knight has faced?

(i.e., Apple joins Nike in notoriety)

wpDiscuz