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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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The absolute power inevitably leads to abuses.  In another paper Pun and Chang cite a study by the independent Foxconn Research Group in 2010, involving interviews of 1,736 employees in 12 separate factory areas and 14 investigators who took one-month positions in the company. It  found that 38 percent of employees had their privacy violated and 16.4 percent – one in six workers – were “subjected to corporal punishment by management and security personnel,” according to Ross Perlin (who is fluent in Chinese and translated parts of the study at my request). Twenty-eight percent of workers said they were abused or insulted. “Public humiliation and confession … is a frequently used management method,”  write Pun and Chang. “Line leaders, who are also under pressure, tend to treat workers in a harsh way to reach the productivity targets.”

Pun and Chang conclude, “Foxconn employees experience long hours of repetitive work for very low income. They submit to management scrutiny on the job, and their low income and limited free time restricts their options outside of work. Many young men and women workers rarely stop working except to eat and sleep, simply to make ends meet. The result is a community of people under intense stress with few resources, a situation conducive to depression.” 

In May 2010, the same month six Foxconn workers died after hurling themselves out of buildings,  a letter issued by Pun and eight other mainland Chinese and Hong Kong academics connected the dots between state policies, global capitalsim and the effects on the workforce. The writers maintained that because young migrant workers never think of “going back to farming like their parents … they see no other option when they enter the city to work. The moment they see there is little possibility of building a home in the city through hard work, the very meaning of their work collapses. The path ahead is blocked, and the road to retreat is closed. Trapped in this situation, the new generation of migrant workers faces a serious identity crisis and, in effect, this magnifies psychological and emotional problems.”

For some, the way out is suicide, writes  UCLA professor Russell Leong: “It’s my belief that workers internalized their oppressive conditions because they could not find ways to resolve the oppressive ‘relations of production’ – treated as part of the machinery of the production assembly line they became demoralized, dehumanized, and finally, desperate. So their only option was a very human one: to throw away or destroy their own bodies as a gesture of frustration – and of defiance.”

As much as Foxconn and Apple laud their audits, their devotion to the law and their ethics ( Steve Jobs emailed an Apple user critical of the suicides, “We do more than any other company on the planet”), the companies ascended to the top on a heap of bodies. They are hardly unique, and that’s the problem. 

As far as labor practices goes, Foxconn is no different than its rivals, and it’s impossible to escape. It assembles electronics for everyone including the iPad’s rival, the Kindle, and the Acer computer I’m writing this on. All that matters is that Wall Street is happy because  Apple has more cash on hand than the U.S. Treasury

Apple and consumers alike could easily pay more as labor accounts for only 7 percent of costs. Tripling wages and benefits might add $100 to an iPad. But that would set a bad example. Apple’s profits might decline a notch and Wall Street would dump its stock. Consumers would still have their toys but might buy fewer smart phones, tablets, iPods, Xboxes, laptops, desktops and other digital sundries.