The Real Cost of Your iPhone

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).

bbc-sleeping-workers-2

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,

Jasmine

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

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7 thoughts on “The Real Cost of Your iPhone

  1. Very good and informative post. I think that Apple have to do more to improve many things such as, stop buying materials from illegal miners and improve worker’s working condition. However, I think that we are focusing to much on Apple. I think that we should not just focus at Apple but look at worker’s working conditions around the world and try to improve that but I also think that Apple should be like a role model for other as Apple is so big and make a lot of profit and they can possibly make things better and shows other what should be done. Working conditions in many different countries has always been bad and it is still bad for example, workers in Qatar can be refer to as modern-day slavery as their working and living condition are bad as well as they can’t leave a country without exit visa and they can’t get exit visa without their employers’ approval. Below is an article about working condition in Chinese factory that making computer parts.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/miserable-working-conditions-human-rights-group-condemns-computer-manufacturers-a-596712.html

    Modern-day slavery in Qatar.
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/27/qatar-modern-day-slavery-world-cup-2022

    • Thanks for the comment! 🙂 I completely agree with you in that the BBC’s report did focus too much on Apple and didn’t clearly distinguish the labour laws in China, which I feel would largely impact the working conditions there anyway. I also really like your point in that Apple can act as a role model for other companies (which also don’t seem to come under as much scrutiny, even though they may be involved in similar international labour issues.) I do like how reports such as the BBC’s open up this conversation and helps people bring light to the issue of international labour which is exploited by Western Countries due to cheap production costs. Hopefully, spreading information about this issue will allow powerful companies like Apple to work with countries like China in improving their working conditions, putting more measures in place. Thanks again for your thoughts and your links are also fantastic! 🙂 Kind regards!

  2. Hi Jasmine,
    A very well executed post that is well researched and concise. Your referencing and personal analysis show a clear understanding of this week’s topic and pose a very eye-opening issue for those who have not heard of the “broken promises” of Apple.

    The images coming from Foxconn are at odds with the sleek, innovative brand of Apple that is about to release its newest must-have in the iWatch. It will certainly be interesting to see how this watch is produced and if anything has changed and been learnt from the experience of the iPhone 5 production chain.

    It is now believed that Apple is shifting the majority of it’s work from Foxconn to Pegatron because of cheaper wages. This article is a nice and short with question and answer style posts; a great quick scroll if you are interested. http://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/major-china-apple-supplier-pays-workers-less-foxconn

    What interests me is what is being done with production lines for other major electronics producers – nobody ever seems to question the producers of electronics other than Apple – what about Microsoft? Toshiba? Sony? Panasonic? Samsung etc? It is also great to see your discussions with peers, it provides a good response from not only the topic but from the classes and lectures.

    • HI! 🙂 thanks for the feedback! 🙂 I agree! I definitely want to see more reports into if Apple is still working vigorously to improve the conditions in China. I actually came across this exact article today, it is interesting that Apple has moved to Pegatron, but reports are finding similar or worse working conditions, I believe this highlights the issue that this international labour issue is more complicated than some reports let on and that it is as much a responsibility of Apple to ensure working conditions meet their outlined standards as well as the need for foreign governments to work towards improvement in labour policy too.
      In discussing this topic we also agreed that why is Apple targeted above the other electronics companies, such as Microsoft and Samsung, which I have found (In the article by Chan) to also be supplied by Foxconn. Our class this week concluded this is because Apple is very transparent in reporting that they are working towards fixing these issues and therefore it allows investigators to critically examine if the measures are being maintained or not. It is also largely due to Apple’s value and recognition as a powerful company, but at the same time, other electronics companies should not be exempt from the blame and investigations should extend to all of them to allow these companies to work collaboratively to resolve the issue (perhaps this may have a more profound impact).
      Thanks again for your comment, I love discussing topics on this blog and it makes me so happy to see people are reading! 🙂

  3. Awesome analysis of these investigations, I think it’s important to note the incredible scale of Apple’s operations and you did mention that. Tim Cook said that Apple is doing a lot to ensure their workers are looked after, reports are positive and any issues are not Apple’s fault but looking at these investigations suggests otherwise and looking at other companies suggests more can be done, http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/549914/samsung_suspends_chinese_supplier_over_charges_using_underage_workers/. Samsung, arguably, one of Apple’s biggest competitors has also received allegations of illegal practices within a Chinese factory and as a response, suspended that factory.
    Apple had responded to it’s criticism with ethics guidelines but how can they expect paperwork to fix the issue when the paperwork is clearly part of the issue?

  4. Hi Jasmine,
    In reading your blog I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between Apples situation with Foxconn now and Nike back in the 1990’s. To sum up the scandal, Nike’s contracted factories were accused of unsafe and exploitative working conditions involving highly toxic carcinogens and child labor. Though a disturbing difference here is that when Nike’s unfair (and illegal) working conditions were revealed it received widespread global coverage in the press. This included a 60 minutes feature and cover stories on many of the top news magazines of the day. It’s great that we have reports from BBC that help bring these hidden issues to our attention but there should be many other media outlets working to bring these horrific practices occurring in the Apple company, to consumers attention. Unfortunately, unlike Nike Apples products are planned obsolesce and once they last their maximum life span of approximately two years they will more than likely end up in E-waste, generating pollution and deadly diseases in third world countries. According to a survey by Hunch.com the typical Apple consumer is usually college educated (67%). So in saying that, you would think that their main (educated) target audience would concern themselves with the working conditions in second and third-world countries. And yet, Apple to this day is considered the most valuable company in history and is growing bigger and richer with every purchase. Appalling!
    Keep up the great blog posts 🙂

  5. Hi Jasmine, This is a really fab blog. I really like how you have incorporated the SBS video and images. I feel this really highlights the horrendous conditions these people are working in. I also really liked how you have focused on one company (Apple Inc.). This is such a controversial issue within today’s society and I feel the more these realities of sweatshops and horrible conditions are exposed the more people will take a second thought before purchasing the next gadget. I know that there is an organisation that has developed and produced the ‘FairPhone’ in response to the exploitation of workers. If you haven’t heard of this organisation definitely check it out. It is a really good contrast to the Apple IPhone. Overall fab job.

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