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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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Apple’s most recent supplier-responsibility report addresses the Foxconn suicides, calling on “strategies for supporting workers’ mental health.” Conspicuously absent is a pledge to improve labor conditions on the assembly line.

Last April, a group of students from Santa Clara University’s Labor Action Committee, an affiliate of United Students Against Sweatshops, went to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. Preparing to deliver a hundred postcards signed by Foxconn workers, the students were met by a receptionist who quickly called security. “They weren’t too happy we were there,” says Tim Carlson, a senior at Santa Clara University.

“Apple wants to put up a good image for the sake of good revenue,” says Chan. Apple’s new products still attract lines out the door, but Chan believes that more pressure from consumers will make a difference. “We hope consumers can voice their concern to Apple. Yes, we enjoy new products, but at the same time, we don’t want these products produced in sweatshop-like conditions.”

Last spring, at the height of the suicides, makeITfair declared a global day of action to raise consumer consciousness. Activists held protests across Europe, Latin America and Asia. In June 2010, the Chinese Progressive Association of San Francisco held a vigil in downtown San Francisco, in front of Apple’s first-ever retail store. Participants held candles and carried placards with the names and ages of those who had committed suicide at Foxconn. Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, remembers a young shopper who, upon surveying the action, shrugged and said, “So? People die. That’s just life.”

Tom worries that, as consumers, we have become numb to sweatshops. “We need to face the human aspects of technology,” says Tom. “Consumer education really needs to build upon the compassion of people and not just, ‘Hey, this was made in sweatshops.’ ”

The vigil highlighted the young age of those who had committed suicide. All were in their late teens to early twenties. Suicide notes, published in Chinese press, tragically underscore the workers’ youthfulness. “I like drawing. I like a girl with the name last Ye,” wrote 19-year old Li Hai. Li also apologized to his family, promising to return in his next lifetime to help his father attain a happy, stable life.

“People are missing the stories of worker’s lives,” says Tom, reflecting on the Apple protest. “I think that’s why Foxconn was a wake-up call. I hope that doesn’t mean in order to get people’s attention, workers have to kill themselves. I mean, what’s after that?”

Sophia Cheng is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She is currently a MA student in the Asian American Studies program at UCLA.

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