iJump: The High Social Price of Cheap Electronics

(Photo: Forbes Conrad/Bloomberg)

by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage

On August 4, 2015, workers arrived at a manufacturing facility in Zhengzhou, China, ready to begin their shift assembling iPhones. On their way into the building, they passed the body of a 28-year-old male who had thrown himself from the roof. Chinese electronics manufacturers have earned a certain reputation because of the frequency of this type of event at their facilities. Apple engineers even call the facility that produces their iPhones ‘Mordor’, and for good reason.

It would be considered deeply unusual for anyone to forgo electronic devices in this day and age. These words were written on a chintzy sub-$300 Toshiba laptop, sold and shipped by a popular online retailer. You are almost certainly reading this on a smartphone, laptop, tablet or commercially available desktop PC. Have you ever swung a virtual sword in the Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Wii, or made a no-scope headshot in Halo 2 for the Xbox? When did you last check your text messages, Facebook feed or email account? Our gadgets-of-choice are now a permanent staple in our daily routines. These devices are all but escapable in the modern era, but in truth, why would we want to?

By all accounts, we are living in an unprecedented golden age of personal electronics. Never before have such technological marvels been available to so many people, and at such a low price. These electronics, however, carry a very highly social cost; a cost that is easily hidden from, and therefore ignored by, the typical consumer.

Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd, also known as Foxconn Technology Group, is a Taiwanese manufacturing company, hired on a contractual basis to assemble electronics for corporations around the world. Foxconn’s clientele include Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Amazon, and others. Tech companies, particularly those in the United States and Japan, seek to manufacture their hardware in China to sidestep domestic labor protections, employee wage floors, unionization, and environmental regulations. Foxconn provides them with this opportunity in spades.

If you have owned or used a modern electronics device, there is a good chance it was made at one of Foxconn’s manufacturing sites in China. Foxconn’s most infamous site is Foxconn City in Shenzhen, China, where thousands of people live on site in crowded dormitories and work very long shifts, often 12 hours per day or more. The workers are paid very low wages and often live many hours from their families and friends, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. In the last month alone, Foxconn acknowledged multiple deaths at this facility, including a suicide jumper and a woman who suffered a heart attack on the line and later died in the hospital.

Foxconn has a long history of dismal working conditions, leading to (sometimes fatal) worker exhaustion, riots, mass protests and suicide jumpers. In 2010 alone, 18 people jumped from a Foxconn facility in attempted suicide, with 14 succeeding and a handful of others being injured or paralyzed. Following the spat of suicides in 2010, Foxconn executives drafted a letter to be signed by all employees, removing any and all liability from the company in the event of worker death. Due to outrage both inside and outside of the company, the letter was eventually rescinded.

Since 2007, there have been at least 25 suicides reported at Foxconn facilities. In 2012, Foxconn employees conducted a “mass suicide” protest, in which approximately 150 workers stood on the roof and threatened to jump if conditions and wages at the plant were not improved. The possibility of suicide jumpers became so great that the company installed “anti-suicide nets” outside of windows the following year designed to catch people who took the plunge.

Seventeen year old Tian Yu took a 700 mile journey in February 2010 to accept a job at Foxconn City in Shenzhen. Once employed, she typically worked 12 hours per day, 6 days per week; at one point she worked fourteen days straight. She was also forced to skip meals in order to perform overtime and attended mandatory meetings without pay. On the morning of March 17, 2010, just one month after accepting the job, she jumped from a fourth story window. She awoke from a coma 12 days later to find she had broken her spine and pelvis and was permanently paralyzed.

Discord and tension amongst workers has been a permanent fixture at Foxconn facilities for years. One facility in Taiyuan, China was forced to close after a worker riot in 2012. Workers often complain about harsh labor practices, including threats of dismissal for mild offenses like talking to coworkers or using the restroom. One employee, 25-year-old Sun Danyong, was allegedly beaten for misplacing a fourth generation iPhone prototype, and ultimately jumped to his death from a twelfth story window at Foxconn three days after reporting the prototype missing.

Faced with mounting criticism over labor abuses, Foxconn has been forced to make improvements over the last few years. Due to both public pressure and pressure from clients like Apple, Foxconn promised to raise wages, reduce hour requirements and provide more benefits and amenities to those living in the dormitories. In 2012, the company announced it would be raising monthly salaries from 2,200 yuan (US$350) to 4,000 yuan (US$630) per month, putting worker pay above the minimum wage of Foxconn’s home country of Taiwan for the first time ever. However, subsequent analyses found the improvements to be lacking, particularly pertaining to the employee’s required work hours. The Fair Labor Association released a report that found that while Foxconn did reduce average employee time on the job to less than 60 hours per week, it had still not met the Chinese legal limit of 49 hours of regular work per week and 36 hours of overtime work per month.

There have also been reports of Foxconn using unpaid workers in order to provide the promised improvements to salaried employees, while still keeping production up and costs down. In 2013, Foxconn initiated an internship program with students from Xian Institute of Technology, promising the students they would be learning about mass manufacturing processes. The students, however, were forced to work on the line, assembling Playstation 4 gaming consoles without monetary compensation. The students were informed that if they failed to comply with hourly production requirements, they would not receive the course credit necessary to graduate.

Personal electronics are a necessity today, and almost impossible to go without in the modern economy. This, in combination with the fact that production and consumption of electronics are geographically disconnected and isolated from one another, makes the problem of labor abuses in electronics manufacturing a tough nut to crack. The first step in solving this problem is to raise public awareness of where our electronics are coming from, and the ways in which they are produced. Only then can we begin to take action in solving such a far-reaching, systemic problem.


Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Before that, Kevin sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and was an adjunct professor of Government and Politics at Utica College.

 

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