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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.

The world’s largest electronics manufacturer, Foxconn Technology Group, has a plan for ending the grisly run of worker suicides that have drawn it unwanted attention over the past two years: replace human workers with one million robots. It seems the best way to interrupt rising global outrage over worker abuse in iPhone factories is to just get rid of the workers.

With a labor force of 1.2 million people, Foxconn is China’s largest private employer and biggest exporter. It manufactures familiar products for the U.S. market. Through contracts with Apple, Motorola, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Sony, it makes the computers, phones, laptops and printers that we use every day—including the iPhones and iPads that many people will use to read this very article.

In Foxconn’s highest-paying factories, located in China’s coastal cities, workers earn just $1.18 an hour, and that only after a recent 30 percent increase in wages. But the manufacturer’s loudest critics point out that blame for horrific labor conditions isn’t Foxconn’s alone. As long as multinational corporations that market popular brands to Western consumers demand fast, high-quality work at rock-bottom prices, consumer electronics will be made in sweatshops.

“Foxconn’s labor conditions are very poor, but its root causes are low prices from multinational companies and tight delivery schedules,” says Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch. “Workers are only seen as fitting production needs rather than as individual human beings.”

Foxconn became notorious when a dozen workers attempted suicide in the spring of 2010. They were not the first, however. A combination of non-stop work and social isolation has driven 25 Foxconn workers to attempt suicide since 2007, including seven in May of 2010 alone. Twenty-one workers have died, the majority by jumping from dorms or work buildings.

Extensive coverage by Chinese press as well as reports by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Behavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based watchdog group, provide a detailed look into what labor activists describe as Foxconn’s “ militarized management.”

Silicon Sweatshops

Workers typically live in factory dorms with roommates who work different shifts and speak different dialects of Chinese. Differences in schedule and language prevent workers from forming close relationships—a boon for production, since isolation makes for more focused workers. “When you come in, every aspect of your personal life has been determined for you,” says Ellen Friedman, lecturer in labor studies at Sun Yat-Sen University. “Foxconn does everything it can to avoid and minimize social interaction.”

Talking and stretching are forbidden on the assembly line, and clocking in five minutes late may result in the loss of half a day’s wages. Bathroom use is limited to 10 minutes, which is strictly enforced by an electronic key card.

Hong Kong’s SACOM recently discovered that workers have been forced to write public “confession letters,” a punishment reminiscent of Maoist China. Mistakes on the assembly line, or even a general accusation of inefficiency, are enough to merit a confession letter.

Most work involves standing and performing small, repetitive motions. Overtime means 12 hours of almost continuous standing. “I’m just non-stop working in front of the machine, ‘punished’ to stand for eight hours [each shift],” Li Xiang Zhu told Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly. “When we’re standing, if something drops, you can bend down to pick it up. You wish so badly that things would keep dropping just so you never have to stand back up.”

Workers are frisked for industrial espionage when clocking out, says Friedman. In 2009, engineer Sun Danyong committed suicide after management accused him of stealing an iPhone prototype. His suicide note suggests that he was beaten and harassed by Foxconn guards.

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