Ms. Chen aspires to become a biologist. She says she almost feels like an animal. Playful with words? No, Ms. Chen has no time for games. She gets off from work and she goes straight to bed, and the next day she does the same thing all over again. How could she not? The warning on the banners that hang from the walls at the factory where she does manual work is crystal clear: “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow.”
Of course this is a world away, in China, but guess what? Ms. Chen put the stickers on the screen of your iPad. Doesn’t it give you a special feeling inside to know of someone so far and so close at the same time? Unfortunately, I cannot introduce you to the rest of her co-workers; some perished in the attempt to increase technology giant Apple’s equally gigantic market share.
In 2009, a guy committed suicide because he lost the latest iPhone prototype, and in 2010, 18 workers jumped to their deaths from the tops of Apple manufacturer Foxconn’s buildings. Foxconn’s response was to install safety nets and provide workers with mental healthcare. Also in 2010, the seemingly innocuous task of cleaning iPhone screens sent 140 workers to hospital. Rubbing alcohol takes some time to evaporate, so they were asked to use n-hexane instead. The toxic chemical can cause paralysis and damage to the nerves, but hey, you can’t imagine the rate of cleaned screens per minute you can get! And how do you like the sleek look of your iPad? Two explosions in 2011 injured 75 people and killed four workers. A silly build-up of aluminum dust from polishing iPads caused the blasts. Apple had allegedly been alerted to the hazardous conditions inside the supplier’s plants — were they too busy to react?
Don’t get me wrong; Apple isn’t alone — many other electronics companies are deep in trouble of this sort, but Apple is the most admired brand of all. They claim there’s a lot they’ve done and changed to improve conditions for the workers who serve them so well. Perhaps, but are they trying as hard as they can? Just this month, furniture giant Ikea admitted the company benefited from using forced prison labour in East Germany from the 1960s to 1980s. Under the spotlight today, Ikea managers apologize for not having done enough to bring those production methods to a halt. Great to hear they’re sorry now, but at the time, their production costs were one-tenth of the norm. This seems to be a trend in the corporate world; quickly and easily build your empire by mastering global manufacturing and exploiting suppliers.
One thing is for sure: You and I are to blame as much as everyone else. These companies face few outside pressures for change. In fact, they claim that it’s our thirst for new products every year that dictate their priorities, so labour issues fall on deaf ears.
Come on guys, this Christmas, while we’re lining up for the iPad Mini (likely the iPad Mini 2 by the time this reaches you), let’s put some thought into our toy’s real production cost. After all, aren’t all these gizmos about staying connected with the rest of the world? Well, it’s within our power to make Apple’s success hugely explosive or downright fair.