For years now, the slick design and intuitive interface of Apple's popular products have endeared the company to gadget geeks the world over. But increasingly, customers are becoming guilt-ridden, as allegations of human rights abuses at Apple's Chinese suppliers continue to surface. Should Apple fans be concerned? That's what Wired magazine aimed to find out in its March cover story "Gadget Guilt." The issue, which is arriving on subscribers' doorsteps this week, comes as The New York Times brings its own skeptical take on Apple's labor policies in China. Both articles give a fairly even-handed assessment of Apple's behavior. Here's a breakdown of the bad stuff and the defensible stuff:
The Bad Stuff
- Apple's largest Chinese supplier, Foxconn Technologies, has had 17 suicides in the last five years.
- The company has even installed nets to prevent workers from jumping off the building
- Human rights groups have complained of "sweatshop conditions" and "forced overtime" at Foxconn. One Hong Kong-based group accused Foxconn's Shenzhen plant of making workers toil for 13 days straight for 12 hours a day to work on the first generation iPad.
- "When one jumper left a note explaining that he committed suicide to provide for his family, the program of remuneration for the families of jumpers was cancelled."
- At Wintek, a Taiwanese-owned company in China, workers have complained of "sore limbs," "extreme weakness," dizzy spells, headaches and being unable to button their own shirts. Doctors later discovered that the workers were exposed to n-hexane, a toxic agent used to clean the glass on Apple's iPhones. Some workers were hospitalized and diagnosed with nerve damage.
The Mitigating Information
- 17 suicides isn't actually that bad for 1 million workers. By comparison, the suicide rate for American college students is four times that. Looking at it another way, Foxconn's suicide rate is also below China's national average.
- Foxconn has onsite counseling facilities with psychologists and counselors. It also has a care center that provides music therapy and private counseling.
- Foxconn employees work for 10 hours a day, with two 10-minute breaks and an hour for lunch
- After visiting Foxconn, Wired's Joe Johnson says it's more like a college campus than communist slave mill. He describes dorms and cafeterias and says it's not much worse than other types of manufacturing work. "It seems incredibly boring--like factory work anywhere in the developed world."
- As for the toxic agent, n-hexane, Apple says it's no longer being used at Wintek and the company has repaired its ventilation system.
So what do you think? Should Americans still have "gadget guilt"?