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iEmpire: Apple's Sordid Business Practices Are Even Worse Than You Think

New research goes beyond the New York Times to show just how disturbing labor conditions at Foxconn, the "Chinese hell factory," really are.
 
 
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Behind the sleek face of the iPad is an ugly backstory that has revealed once more the horrors of globalization. The buzz about Apple’s sordid business practices is courtesy of the New York Times series on the “ iEconomy. In some ways it’s well reported but adds little new to what  critics of the Taiwan-based Foxconn, the  world’s largest electronics manufacturer, have been  saying for years. The series' biggest impact may be discomfiting Apple fanatics who as they read the articles realize that the iPad they are holding is  assembled from child labor, toxic shop floors, involuntary overtime, suicidal working conditions, and preventable accidents that kill and maim workers.

It turns out the story is much worse. Researchers with the Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) say that legions of vocational and university students, some as young as 16, are forced to take months'-long “internships” in Foxconn’s mainland China factories assembling Apple products. The details of the internship program paint a far more disturbing picture than the Times does of how Foxconn, “ the Chinese hell factory,” treats its workers, relying on public humiliation, military discipline, forced labor and physical abuse as management tools to hold down costs and extract maximum profits for Apple.

To supply enough employees for Foxconn, the 60th largest corporation globally, government officials are serving as lead recruiters at the cost of pushing teenage students into harsh work environments. The scale is astonishing with the Henan provincial government having announced in both 2010 and 2011 that it would send 100,000 vocational and university students to work at Foxconn, according to SACOM.

Ross Perlin, author of  Intern Nation, told AlterNet that “Foxconn is conspiring with government officials and universities in China to run what may be the world's single largest internship program – and one of the most exploitative. Students at vocational schools – including those whose studies have nothing to do with consumer electronics – are literally forced to move far from home to work for Foxconn, threatened that otherwise they won't be allowed to graduate. Assembling our iPhones and Kindles for meager wages, they work under the same conditions, or worse, as other workers in the Foxconn sweatshops.” 

The state involvement shows Foxconn and Apple depend on tax breaks, repression of labor, subsidies and Chinese government aid, including housing, infrastructure, transportation and recruitment, to fatten their corporate treasuries. As the students function as seasonal employees to meet increased demand for new product rollouts, Apple is directly dependent on forced labor.

The real story of the Apple-Foxconn behemoth, then, is far from being John Galt incarnate. Their global dominance is forged in the crucible of China’s state-managed authoritarian capitalism. Since the 1980s China has starved rural areas to accelerate the industrialization of coastal cities like Shenzhen, where Foxconn first set up shop in 1988.  Scholars who study China’s economy and labor market link rural underdevelopment to the creation of a massive migrant work force that serves as the foundation of the country’s industrialization. Deprived of many rights, migrants are recruited to work in Foxconn's city-sized complexes by government employees with  false promises of good-paying jobs that will help them escape rural poverty. A large percentage of migrant workers are student interns as they are recruited from poor rural regions like Henan and sent to work in coastal metropolises like Shenzhen.

Apple’s formula for mammoth profits, which topped $13 billion last quarter, starts with a highly flexible workforce. Foxconn wields military-style discipline to turn workers into flesh-and-blood robots who can fulfill exacting specifications and orders for new and constantly updated product lines, such as five generations of iPhones in four years. Workers are driven to crank out more computers in less time at lower costs because they are disposable. Of 420,000 employees at “Foxconn City” in Shenzhen, which abuts Hong Kong,  half had less than six months service. The inevitable and systematic abuses crush the dreams of young rural migrants, argue scholars, making the suicides a logical outgrowth of the iEconomy as much as the iPad. Simply put, nothing will change unless Apple and Foxconn are forced to because their empires are built on these practices. (Foxconn  denies everything.)