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The human price point for electronics

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 9:51am
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

“Americans will buy American products when they’re willing to pay for American work.”

Those words came from one of my PR contacts a couple of years ago as we discussed bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. While a return to those standards seems light years away, a more pertinent question we should ask ourselves is “what price are we willing to pay to reclaim our humanity?”

Shortly after the iPad 3 was released, some reports began to surface of a heat-related problem pertaining to the bottom right portion of the device. While reading up about Apple’s response to the issue, I saw disturbing reports about working conditions at the company’s suppliers overseas (thanks in part to a retraction from the public radio program “This American Life” for airing a performance artist who made false claims about his personal investigation into conditions at Foxconn).

Among the articles I came across was “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” (New York Times, January 25, 2012). It’s widely assumed that overseas workers who produce our computers and other electronic toys toil for long hours for meager pay. But the Times article by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza puts a real human face on the dangers and the suffering that occur at Apple’s suppliers.

In addition to mentioning excessive overtime and crowded dorms, the article tells of isolated but very serious safety related incidents such as the 19 Foxconn workers who, over a two-year period, attempted or appeared to have attempted suicide from falling and revelations of workers at a factory owned by Wintek – “an apple manufacturing partner” – being injured by exposure to “a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.” Then there were the aluminum dust explosions at factories producing the iPad last year. The first killed four people and injured 18 at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, and a second injured 59 at a Riteng plant in Shanghai.

In spite of these reports, I’m willing to dial down my criticisms of Apple and Foxconn after the news stories from March 30. According to a Reuters report, Foxconn announced it “will hire tens of thousands of new workers, eliminate illegal overtime, improve safety protocols, and upgrade workers’ housing and other amenities.”

By no means is this a panacea to poor and unsafe working conditions at electronics plants. Apple alone has at least 150 suppliers, and they are certainly not the only electronics company using contract manufacturers overseas. Indeed, two of the more disturbing reports I mentioned above were not at Foxconn plants. Still, Foxconn’s pledge is cause for cautious optimism along with further scrutiny. The company is China’s largest employer and, if leveraged with the right influence from Apple, such reforms could provide the tipping point to improved working conditions at electronics factories everywhere.

But this also begs the difficult question as to whether we are willing to, in turn, leverage our own influence by insisting on further reforms and paying extra to help improve the living standards for those whose work we all treasure.

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