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The Horrific Labor Practices Behind Your iPhone

As long as corporations that market popular brands to consumers demand fast, high-quality work at rock-bottom prices, consumer electronics will be made in sweatshops.

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“If you ever experience stress in terms of work or life, there’s not a single person that you can pour your heart to or who can share your burden,” Li Jin Ming told Southern Weekly. “Each person is a familiar stranger.”

After the unwanted media attention from the suicides, Foxconn installed nets to catch would-be jumpers and CEO Terry Gou solicited the help of social workers, psychologists and even Buddhist monks. But the 30 percent wage hike was perhaps the most significant change—and now it has become an excuse to invest in robots instead of humans.

Because of the popularity of devices like iPads and iPhones, SACOM’s Debby Chan says workers have continued working 80 hours a month in overtime, exceeding China’s legal cap of 36 hours. Along with the higher wages—again, $1.18 an hour in the best-paying jobs—the extended hours have driven up production costs.

Rising cost of materials in China and increasing worker resistance are added pressures. Labor organizing outside of China’s state-run unions is illegal, but in the past few years, workers have staged high-profile protests and strikes across the country. According to Chan, workers at Foxconn’s Chengdu factory surrounded the facility’s dorms last winter, protesting wage miscalculations. The underpayment occurred just before Lunar New Year, when many workers were planning to go home and find new jobs. As a result of all of these forces, “Made in China” is losing its appeal across many industries, as multinational companies look to Bangladesh and Southeast Asia for cheaper labor and fewer troubles.

Foxconn has tried to keep manufacturing costs down by constructing factories inland, where wages are 80 percent of the going rate for coastal workers. However, Wang Xiaohui, an economist at Sun-Yat Sen University, estimates that the wage gap between coastal and inland workers will evaporate within three years. Foxconn’s long-term bet is on robots, which not only work for free, but won’t kill themselves or demand humane treatment.

Fast, Cheap and Inhuman

Although Foxconn has drawn media scrutiny because of its size and high-profile clients, its working conditions are actually standard within the industry. Low pay, constant overtime, and an unforgiving pace of work are the norm.

Multinational corporations claim innocence about working conditions, but the reality is that sweatshops are inevitable when retailers don’t share their wealth with the people who produce their products. At least a third of the money we spend on a new phone or computer goes directly into the pocket of the retailer. Apple makes even more, averaging a 60 percent profit margin on its products.

The majority of production costs go to materials, like screens and chips. Only a fraction goes to workers. Take the iPad, for example, which is the sole item produced at Foxconn’s 100,000-worker factory in Chengdu. Industry analyst iSuppli estimates that Apple spends only $9 on labor for every $499 iPad. That $9 is apparently too expensive, since Foxconn has been taking steps to lower labor costs, first with the inland factories and now with the introduction of a one-million robot workforce.

U.S. media focuses on the alleged lawlessness and craftiness of Chinese manufacturers, implying that multinational corporations are helpless to prevent sweatshops. But campaigns like makeITfair emphasize the power that corporations have to raise pay, increase delivery time, and support workers’ right to organize.

Hong Kong’s SACOM is a partner in the makeITfair campaign. The group conducts undercover investigations inside factories and maintains regular contact with Foxconn workers. SACOM’s Chan says that Apple, compared to other companies, is particularly unresponsive to labor groups. “Journalists contact Apple for an interview about Foxconn,” says Chan. “And every time, the response is identical. It’s just their summary from the supplier’s responsibility report. They’re not directly responding to the specific investigations from NGOs or journalists.”

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