The Human Cost of an iPad | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

The Human Cost of an iPad

Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times documented brutal working conditions at Apple factories in China:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

Apple claims that it holds all its suppliers to high standards, but privately, insiders conceded to the Times that the company sometimes lets suppliers off the hook for violations because it’s costly and time consuming to replace them. As one labor expert explained, Foxconn is basically the only company in the world that can meet Apple’s needs, so “[t]here’s a lot of rationalization.”

We’re trying really hard to make things better,” one former Apple executive told the Times. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

The company developed a code of conduct in 2005 and it has since audited nearly 400 suppliers and suppliers of suppliers. Much of what we know about abuses comes from Apple’s own investigations.

Officially, violators have 90 days to fix the problem, but critics note that the same problems keep cropping up year after year, which suggests accomodation rather than enforcement. It’s interesting that violators get 90 whole days to fix an industrial health and safety violation in a sector prized for its lightening-fast flexibility. If a factory can redesign a screw in three hours to the customer’s exact specifications, why can’t it fix a workplace hazard just as quickly? Maybe because the customer doesn’t care about the hazard as long as the screws keep rolling in.

At some level, everyone knows that no manufacturing system can meet Apple’s incessant and ever-escalating demands for production, flexibility, and low prices without hurting people. “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,” a current Apple executive confided to the Times. “And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

Duhigg’s in-depth investigation of Apple’s manufacturing system ran on Monday. The piece, which set out to explain why iPads aren’t made in the United States, electrified readers and spurred vigorous debate online. Could America win those jobs back? Given the miserable working conditions that Apple assembly workers endure, would we even want to? As long as we’re considering a complete economic makeover to revive high tech manufacturing, are there other models, like extensive automation, that would be more acceptable to Americans?

[Photo credit: waferbaby, Creative Commons.]