The Cost of Convenience

The developing world produces many of the products that the developed world consumers. Alexander Alley addresses one firms shocking production practices and questions whether we are complicit in the mass exploitation of labour.

Hailing from Taiwan, Hon Hai (Foxconn is it’s trading name) has created an exporting leviathan that stretches across the globe. You would undoubtedly be able to find their products around your home.  Name almost any electrical appliance, be it an IPhone, TV or video game console and you could bet that Foxconn has had a part in its construction, since the tech companies are drawn to the staggeringly low cost of production in China. For instance, back when Apple used Foxconn, only 1.8% of the IPhones price went to Foxconn. but how does Foxconn with such a large number of employees survive on such low margins?

They make sure the workers cut of that price is as close to zero as possible. The pay for a worker in a factory of Foxconn’s calibre on average is $17 a day, they work 6 days a week and make $408 a month, of course this doesn’t take into account the overtime that the workers were forced to take to make up for low pay.

Interns” have become a significant component of Foxconn’s labour force, constituting as much as 15 percent at peak times, or 180,000 interns company-wide, making it by far the largest “internship” program in the world.’

Marissaorton / Creative Commons License

Marissaorton / Creative Commons License

On average, most people don’t stay any longer than a year at Foxconn, in Shenzhen alone 24,000 people resign every month, so to make up for the short fall, local officials friendly to the company support them by supplying thousands of students to work unpaid, for five months under the threat that they won’t graduate unless they agree.

Pursuing cheap, accessible labour isn’t uncommon for companies like Foxconn, Pegatron (Apples new supplier) or Wistron to do. In fact, not even children are exempt from working in these factories, all the while being subjected to strict working conditions; no talking, less pay, irregular pay and brutality from the security personnel.

The conditions these people are working under at Foxconn are infamous, constant hazards to the workers have led to numerous fatalities and injuries. In 2012 a worker called Zhang Tingzhen, was electrocuted while constructing an IPhone, and had nearly half his brain surgically “removed”. In the case of Tingzhen;

‘Foxconn, which is paying Zhang’s hospital bills, has been sending telephone text messages to his family since July, demanding they remove him from hospital and threatening to cut off funding for his treatment – a move the firm says would be justified under Chinese labour law.’

This wasn’t an isolated case, there have been many more accidents that have cost the lives of even more workers, the following is just but a few examples of the flagrant disregard for health and safety in a Foxconn factory. In Chengdu, 4 people died and 77 were injured in an explosion, 60 were injured at an explosion in Riteng, and 140 workers were poisoned at Apple’s Wintek (a Foxconn Sub-contractor) with n-hexane, a chemical (also a Neurotoxin) used to clean the screens of IPads and IPhones.

‘According to a 2007 report from China Labour Watch, workers in the Pearl River District lose 40,000 fingers to industrial accidents a year.’

Zoriah / Creative Commons License

Zoriah / Creative Commons License

All in all, this has created an environment of despair, a Dickensian world where life is cheap, a place where people, young people who on average are 20 years old, kill themselves for compensation, because before the company scrapped it, the life insurance could more easily support their families than their pay. The threat of mass suicide of 150 people exemplifies the struggle and extremes a workforce has to take to gain attention from their employer. Foxconn have since placed nets on their rooftops, as a precaution to catch their workers if they jump.

The question we should be asking is how did it get to this point and why do we stand by and let something so abhorrent to our principles stand, opposing sweatshops has effectively become an ideological belief in the West.  Yet the reality is that we are very much complicit in the exploitation of labour in poor countries. As much as you could bet the men and women in the line outside Apple stores would grimace at the stories that these young nongmin gong (peasant workers) face day to day, yet the line still stretches on and on. We share the same culpability as the companies using such cheap labour, therefore, just as those queues for a new IPhone remain, so will the nets.








The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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