The recent spotlight on Apple’s association with Foxconn in China has shed a glaring light on the morally murky practice of using foreign labor to manufacture products consumed in the US and around the World.
The issue is far from cut and dry, with strong arguments on both sides. On one hand, human rights activists insist that the low pay and working conditions those laborers at Foxconn are subjected to are inhumane. On the other hand, it must be noted that the jobs provided by Foxconn are highly sought after in Chinese manufacturing towns, helping many workers support their families and, in some cases, even entire villages while also keeping the cost of tech gadgets and other products vastly lower than they would be if the same products were manufactured in America.
Apple has faced increased scrutiny over its involvement with Foxconn since 2010 when a total of eighteen workers committed or attempted suicide. This total, though it seems shockingly high, is actually well below China’s national average given the immense size of Foxconn manufacturing campuses. This is not to say that Foxconn’s suicide rate is acceptable. Since 2010 the company has opened a counseling center for employees, many of whom live on the work premises in drab dorm-style living arrangements. The company has also strung so-called suicide nets below towers and other ledges to help prevent impulsive jumpers.
In 2011 Foxconn and, by proxy, Apple came under scrutiny again when two explosions at two separate iPad factories injured 77 employees and killed four.
Apple insists that they have been performing independent audits of their suppliers, including Foxconn, since 2007. However, the audits have shown that more than half of workers in 90+ factories have exceeded Foxconn’s 60-hour-per week work limit or have worked seven days per week. Apple CEO Tim Cook insists that no other company has done more to improve the lives of their workers. Apple reports that more than one million workers have been informed of their rights and over 60,000 have taken advantage of free college-level coursework.
Apple is currently trying to do more to right any wrong-doing amidst their Chinese suppliers by hiring the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to perform an independent audit of working conditions in Foxconn factories. Apple is the first tech company to become a member of the FLA. Detractors worry that the audit results will be skewed because Apple is an FLA member, but FLA president Auret van Heerden insists that member companies have no influence over inspections and that any whitewashing would be “painfully obvious.”
While Apple is one of Foxconn’s largest clients, Foxconn also manufactures products for Sony, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Motorola, and Toshiba.
Foxconn is China’s largest employer after the Chinese government. Starting workers at their Apple manufacturing campuses make $1.78 per hour. In the United States, electronics assemblers make an average of $23 per hour. If the same products were manufactured in the United States, the cost to consumers would go up exponentially, which would drastically lower sales, which would in turn push the price up even more.
Oddly enough, many of the unskilled assembly line jobs at Foxconn are slowly being phased out by automated machines that perform the same tasks, and those manufacturing machines are constructed in the United States.
When examining the moral issues behind outsourcing manufacturing labor, there are no easy answers. Whatever the result of the FLA’s Foxconn audit, consumers must recognize that we now live in a global economy and educate themselves accordingly.