Worker Suicides in China? It’s Your Fault

Some media outlets are working hard this week to pin blame on Apple for a worker’s suicide at an iPhone-producing factory in Shenzhen, China.

But it’s not Apple’s fault. Heck, it’s not even the fault of the company that operates the factory, Foxxcon Technology.

It’s your fault. And mine.

We, as a massive, unquenchable consumer collective, are a source of unrealistic demands for more, more, more products that must be ever-cheaper. And those demands fall directly on the heads of workers, like the one who jumped off of a factory roof last week.

We are the spoilt brat of the First World. We are that fat, whining, annoying preschool suckhole that cries when it doesn’t get every new toy it wants.

We are mannerless, refusing to observe even the basic tenets of morality, refusing to take responsibility for our actions.

On the playground that is our life, when someone gets hurt, it’s always someone else’s fault.

And that’s what’s just happened in China: the 11th suicide this year at a factory that produces our favourite gadgets from Apple, Dell, HP, and pretty much every other major electronics company.

Of course, as a result, our self-righteous, neo-liberal mindset is enraged.

So we blame Apple. Or Dell. Or the factory-owner. Or the manager.

We refuse to recognize our role, ignore the direct relationship between us and that worker which is defined something like this:

We  demand stuff, like the iPhone, cheap. Companies, like Apple, want to make cheap stuff for us. They find a place where they can make stuff cheap, like China.

Chinese factories, like Foxconn, source out cheap lives to make stuff.

Hence, there is a direct correlation between the monetary value we place on the stuff we buy and that which we place on the lives of the people who produce it.

That’s natural, that’s the way economies work.

The problem is, however, as self-appointed First World monarchs, we’ve skewed the worth of the stuff we buy well above that of the peasant’s life that produced it.

Or maybe it’s just that we don’t care about the human cost?

A recent report from the National Labour Committee described a Chinese factory where teenaged workers toil for 15 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week in a cramped, 30ºC room to produce Microsoft-branded mice. They make about $113 per month.

Another report describes a Chinese factory that produces keyboards for HP, Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft, and IBM. Workers make 64¢ an hour. They work 12-hour shifts with two days off each month. Their weekly bonus consists of a boiled chicken leg and foot. The rest of the time they eat stewed rice and cabbage.

Workers at both factories are virtual prisoners, rarely permitted to leave the facilities.

Factories like these exist around the world, in countries like Guatemala, Jordan, Japan, India, El Salvador, South Korea, and Bangladesh.

They harbour environments of abuse, rape, and human trafficking. They underpay their workers. They cheat their workers of benefits. They force their workers to push their bodies to the breaking point with unrealistic production goals.

And they discard their workers when they’re no longer of use. Not many factories employ workers over the age of 40.

They are the sweatshops of the Internet Age.

They exist solely to satisfy our collective addiction to material consumption.

Yes, the middlemen like Apple and Foxconn reap massive monetary benefits off of our relationship with the workers.

But we define the relationship, we drive the demand. In effect, we are directly answerable for the conditions foreign workers suffer.

So what should we do?

To start, let companies know we care. (We do, don’t we?)

Remember a few years back when Apple’s products were among the most environmentally harmful? (I.e. my column from April 2007: Save the World: Don’t Buy Apple)

A huge consumer and media backlash forced the company to reinvent its approach to engineering. Apple is now a leader in the design of environmentally-friendly electronics.

In fact, that’s now a key aspect of their marketing.

As consumers we can force the same change in regards to the manufacturing conditions of products.

We can demand that the people who produced the goods we buy are treated in the same fashion we expect to be treated as workers.

Before you buy a product, phone or email the company that makes it and ask about the people involved with its manufacture.

You might not get an answer. If that’s the case, let that company know you’re not interested in their products until they give you one.

As more of us demand that our gadgetry is produced in humane work environments, the more likely companies are to ensure that it is.

Just look at a can of tuna. If we can protect dolphins from the fishing industry, surely we can force Apple and its kin to produce human-friendly electronics.

We need to stop pointing fingers when a factory worker jumps to his death from a Chinese factory roof.

Instead, we need to look hard at our reflection in the mirrored glass surface of our iPhones and see ourselves for what we truly are: the one who pushed him.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 28, 2010.

2 thoughts on “Worker Suicides in China? It’s Your Fault

  1. I note that this was published the day that the iPad went on sale throughout the world.

    Apple’s products already sell at a premium to its competitor’s products. I assume that premium is partly due to the extra design that goes into Apple’s iDoodads, and partly due to a loyalty markup that only Apple can command.

    I’m curious what the premium would be were Apple’s products to be produced at a morally-acceptable factory. Would it be too much for even the most socially-aware of us to afford? Or would it be a difference of mere peanuts that all but the most Walmart-ized of us would be willing to pay. I would like to see the number, just to have some sense of my dependency on the exploitation of these workers.

    I’m hopeful that the difference isn’t that great, so that someday soon we will see a “fair trade” market in computer technology.

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