The Deadly Labor Behind Our Phones, Laptops and Consumer Gadgets

The world's largest consumer manufacturer has drawn global outrage for a string of worker suicides in its factories. But the problem is rooted in Western consumer markets, not Chinese sweatshops.

By Sophia Cheng Sep 01, 2011

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.

"If you ever experience stress in terms of work or life, there’s not a single person that you can pour your heart to or who can share your burden," Li Jin Ming told Southern Weekly. "Each person is a familiar stranger."

After the unwanted media attention from the suicides, Foxconn installed nets to catch would-be jumpers and CEO Terry Gou solicited the help of social workers, psychologists and even Buddhist monks. But the 30 percent wage hike was perhaps the most significant change–and now it has become an excuse to invest in robots instead of humans.

Because of the popularity of devices like iPads and iPhones, SACOM’s Debby Chan says workers have continued working 80 hours a month in overtime, exceeding China’s legal cap of 36 hours. Along with the higher wages–again, $1.18 an hour in the best-paying jobs–the extended hours have driven up production costs.

Rising cost of materials in China and increasing worker resistance are added pressures. Labor organizing outside of China’s state-run unions is illegal, but in the past few years, workers have staged high-profile protests and strikes across the country. According to Chan, workers at Foxconn’s Chengdu factory surrounded the facility’s dorms last winter, protesting wage miscalculations. The underpayment occurred just before Lunar New Year, when many workers were planning to go home and find new jobs. As a result of all of these forces, "Made in China" is losing its appeal across many industries, as multinational companies look to Bangladesh and Southeast Asia for cheaper labor and fewer troubles.

Foxconn has tried to keep manufacturing costs down by constructing factories inland, where wages are 80 percent of the going rate for coastal workers. However, Wang Xiaohui, an economist at Sun-Yat Sen University, estimates that the wage gap between coastal and inland workers will evaporate within three years. Foxconn’s long-term bet is on robots, which not only work for free, but won’t kill themselves or demand humane treatment.

Fast, Cheap and Inhuman

Although Foxconn has drawn media scrutiny because of its size and high-profile clients, its working conditions are actually standard within the industry. Low pay, constant overtime, and an unforgiving pace of work are the norm.

Multinational corporations claim innocence about working conditions, but the reality is that sweatshops are inevitable when retailers don’t share their wealth with the people who produce their products. At least a third of the money we spend on a new phone or computer goes directly into the pocket of the retailer. Apple makes even more, averaging a 60 percent profit margin on its products.

The majority of production costs go to materials, like screens and chips. Only a fraction goes to workers. Take the iPad, for example, which is the sole item produced at Foxconn’s 100,000-worker factory in Chengdu. Industry analyst iSuppli estimates that Apple spends only $9 on labor for every $499 iPad. That $9 is apparently too expensive, since Foxconn has been taking steps to lower labor costs, first with the inland factories and now with the introduction of a one-million robot workforce.

U.S. media focuses on the alleged lawlessness and craftiness of Chinese manufacturers, implying that multinational corporations are helpless to prevent sweatshops. But campaigns like makeITfair emphasize the power that corporations have to raise pay, increase delivery time, and support workers’ right to organize.

Hong Kong’s SACOM is a partner in the makeITfair campaign. The group conducts undercover investigations inside factories and maintains regular contact with Foxconn workers. SACOM’s Chan says that Apple, compared to other companies, is particularly unresponsive to labor groups. "Journalists contact Apple for an interview about Foxconn," says Chan. "And every time, the response is identical. It’s just their summary from the supplier’s responsibility report. They’re not directly responding to the specific investigations from NGOs or journalists."

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.