While the launch of Apple’s new iPhone 5, less than a year after the release of the previous 4S model, has been met by crowds of enthusiastic consumers eager to get their hands on this year’s must have piece of kit, the technology giant and their manufacturing partner Foxconn remain dogged by persistent criticism over apparent sweatshop conditions at their Chinese production facilities.
ith fresh reports of rioting at the Taiyuan plant following the assault of workers by security personnel, questions should be asked regarding the ethical impact of Apple’s deliberate limitation of their product’s commercial shelf-life.
A subsidiary of the Taiwanese Hon Hai Group, Foxconn employ over a million people in mainland China, including 79,000 at the Taiyuan plant alone, and are the world’s largest contract manufacturer of Apple products. Having initially failed to pass comment on the rioting, a company spokesman, Louis Woo, claimed through Chinese newspaper China Daily that the unrest was ‘not work related’. Given Foxconn’s track record for labour conditions inside the plant, however, Mr Woo’s assessment seems improbable at best.
[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]questions should be asked regarding the ethical impact of Apple’s deliberate limitation of their product’s commercial shelf-life.[/quote]
Workers at the facility live in crowded dorms and are expected to work excessive overtime, sometimes working gruelling shifts seven days a week. Effectively operating as a city within a city, the plant provides facilities to meet worker’s basic needs, but leisure facilities are scarce, and with the immense pressure to meet quotas and deadlines at least eighteen workers have chosen to take their own lives in the past two years. Other Foxconn run facilities in China face accusations of employing underage labour and of falsifying records to conceal the improper disposal of hazardous materials.
Given the electronic giant’s near-incomparable economic clout and the massive value of their contracts to manufacturers, worker conditions in these Chinese factories could no doubt be improved virtually overnight if Apple chose to impose stricter ethical standards upon its suppliers, and yet, in spite of its potential to enforce change, the company does nothing.
[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]Workers at the facility live in crowded dorms and are expected to work excessive overtime, sometimes working gruelling shifts seven days a week.[/quote]
In a report published in the New York Times in January of this year, an anonymous Apple executive provided an insight into the company’s reasoning, stating that “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards.”
Apple’s business model, based on an annual redesign and improvement of each product in their range, necessitates the punishing conditions endured by the workers at the bottom of their supply chain. Foxconn have a target to produce 57 million units of the iPhone 5 over the next year, at which point the model is likely to become redundant as the next iteration is released an new targets are set. In order to maintain their lucrative contract with Apple, therefore, long shifts and enforced overtime must remain a fact of life for tens of thousands of workers.
[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]he only way in which conditions will improve in Chinese manufacturing plants is if consumers vote with their wallets [/quote]
While an ever increasing number of us seek to incorporate an ethical element into our purchasing decisions, for the time being Apple appear to benefit from a temporary suspension of consumer ethics around the release of every new iteration of the iPhone. The only way in which conditions will improve in Chinese manufacturing plants is if consumers vote with their wallets and the financial implications of the status quo begin to impact upon Apple’s bottom line.
While the rioting in Taiyuan may now be under control, reports of armed police stationed on every corner and entrance suggest that the threat of violence still looms large. Until Apple are forced to step in and make the necessary changes, the atmosphere seems unlikely to change for the better.
By Sam Jones