It is easy in today’s media-saturated climate to turn a blind eye to the impacts of the technologies we use. With the constant need to be up-to-date with the latest digital trends, our focus often drifts from understanding the real stories behind the production of our shiny new gadgets.
“Ordinarily concealed from public view,” the supply chain for some of our most favourite pieces of technology relies on the outsourcing of unfair labour to workers in sweatshops in South East Asia (Chan, 2013). With recent trends looking into the human impact of our media use, revelations regarding the manufacturing of these products have emerged and raised concern about corporate business models used by large companies at the expense of their overseas workers.
In 2010, all eyes were laid on ‘the most valuable brand on the planet,” (BBC, 2014) Apple Inc. and their relationship to Taiwanese owned supplier, Foxconn Technology Group. A total of 18 Foxconn workers, working on the Apple iPhone production line, attempted suicide at factories located in Chengdu, Guanlan and Longhua, China. 14 of them died instantly and the others were left with debilitating injuries. One of these survivors was 17 year old Tian Yu, who said the working conditions on Foxconn’s iPhone line were filled with long working hours, denial of dinner breaks and refusal for days off even after enduring overtime for a number of weeks. With Foxconn’s business model centred around time-efficiency to meet the global demand of Apple products, workers who were too exhausted to continue working quickly were publicly humiliated by managers in front of their co-workers (Chan, 2013).
With these unfair conditions publicly revealed to the world stage, Apple and Foxconn were quick to state they were committed to improving the working conditions on their production lines overseas. In 2012, after news broke of a protest condutced by Foxconn workers who threatened to jump from the factory roof if working conditions did not improve, Apple and Foxconn renewed their commitmentto their Chinese workers by launching a 15 month action plan by to rectify the situation (Blackden, 2012).
Chinese workers falling asleep from exhaustion on Apple’s production line. Image source: BBC
In December, 2014, providing an in-depth look at Apple’s responsibility to workers in their supply chain, BBC Panorama aired a program to test if Apple had kept their promises to assist their Chinese workers. Titled ‘Apple’s Broken Promises,’ its apparent that the BBC found some gaps in Apple’s commitment. Undercover reporters posing as Chinese workers found similar working conditions to Yu’s at Pegatron, an Apple supplier in Shanghai, China. There, workers were forced to sign worksheets that were used to document employee’s willingness to work overtime, and were denied requests for a day off after working 12 hour shifts continuously over 18 days. Footage of workers falling asleep on the job from exhaustion also demonstrated the horrible conditions (Bilton, 2014). The following footage summarises BBC Panorama’s findings:
In response to the BBC report, Apple CEO Tim Cook was quick to say it was offensive and biased. In an open letter to Apple’s UK employees Cook said Apple is currently doing more than any other company to support their overseas workers and the fact that the BBC did not consider this was unfair (Williams, 2014). While Apple’s obvious popularity generates a lot of excitement over their new products and even products that aren’t released yet, reports such as the BBC’s open up a new discussion about our technology production and use. A discussion that’s far away from Apple’s sleek and innovative marketed image.
Discussing the BBC Panorama report with my fellow peers, some responses said the report is ineffective in making a change, as the introduction of the next new Apple product will overshadow any labour issues that appear out of plain sight. While this is sadly true, it is the role of us as consumers to put pressure on large corporations, holding them accountable to produce their goods ethically. It is with reports like the BBC’s that bring these typically hidden issues to the forefront of consumers’ minds and gives corporations the opportunity to rectify the situation.
Thank you for reading,
References: (BBC) Bilton, R 2014, ‘Apple’s Broken Promises,’ BBC Panorama, accessed April 2, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04vs348
Blackden, R, 2012, ‘Apple supplier Foxconn promises to improve following scathing report into working conditions,’ Telegraph UK, Viewed March 24, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/9175077/Apple-supplier-Foxconn-promises-to-improve-following-scathing-report-into-working-conditions.html
Chan, J, 2013, ‘A suicide survivor: the life of a Chinese worker,’ New Technology, Work and Employment, vol. 28, no. 2, pp 84-99
Williams, R 2014, ‘Read: Apple’s letter to UK staff over Chinese factory conditions,’ Telegraph UK, Telegraph UK, viewed March 24, < http://telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/11303406/Read-Apples-letter-to-UK-staff-over-Chinese-factory-conditions.html>
Williams, R 2014, ‘Apple goes to war with the BBC,’ Telegraph UK, Viewed March 24, http://telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/11303052/Apple-working-conditions-Tim-Cook.html