A year ago, we probably would've been excited about new reports that the Foxconn is starting to manufacture the new teardrop-shaped iPhone for a midsummer launch, but now we just feel weird about the whole thing. This discomfort, of course, comes from learning all of the horrible details about how these gadgets are built in The New York Times's recent jaw-droppingly graphic and intimidatingly expansive investigation into Apple's manufacturing practices. What used to be an exciting what'll-they-do-next? conversation about a new Apple goodie is now bound to turn into how-many-workers-will-die? debate.
If you haven't been keeping up with The Times' series on The iEconomy, you should. The latest bombshell report by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza focuses on the "human cost" of building an iPad and the level of detail presented by the paper is impressive, especially when dealing with a company as famously secretive and press-shy as Apple. Secrecy used to be the reason why Apple rumors were fun! A picture of a case would leak, leading all of the fanboys to zoom in close to guess why it had an extra-wide hole for the home button or to wonder how big the screen would be. Now, we can't stop thinking about how cutting out the curved aluminum back risks harming (or killing) underpaid Chinese workers. This scene from Duhigg and Barboza's new article is haunting:
Dust is a known safety hazard. In 2003, an aluminum dust explosion in Indiana destroyed a wheel factory and killed a worker. In 2008, agricultural dust inside a sugar factory in Georgia caused an explosion that killed 14.
Two hours into Mr. Lai’s second shift, the building started to shake, as if an earthquake was under way. There was a series of blasts, plant workers said.
Then the screams began.
Lai, a 22-year-old with a girlfriend and a mother and a father, suffered extensive burns to 90 percent of his body."I recognized him from his legs, otherwise I wouldn't know who that person was," his girlfriend told The Times about when she first saw Lai after the accident. He died two days later; the death toll of this explosion ultimately totalled four and 18 were injured. Foxconn's -- and by association, Apple's -- response is troubling:
After Mr. Lai [Xiaodong] died, Foxconn workers drove to Mr. Lai’s hometown and delivered a box of ashes. The company later wired a check for about $150,000.
Our mind immediately jumps to the line at the Apple store, where a few months from now, fanboys and girls will wait excitedly, credit cards in hand. Apple's profits alone last quarter are greater than the GDP of many of the world's nations. That makes the $22-a-day that Foxconn was paying Liu seem not pitiable but almost insulting. A follow-up post from The Lede blog shows that opinions of the report in China are mixed.
We're not labor experts and certainly struggle to comprehend the complex supply chain that carries the components from their manufacturers to Foxconn, where workers make them into iPhones and iPads before they're rushed to Apple stores worldwide. At those stores, everything is surgically clean, and there's little evidence or mention about where these highly coveted devices came from. According to one Apple executive, the backstory doesn't matter to consumers. "You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards," an unnamed current Apple executive told The Times. "And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."
If you do care about working conditions in China, don't buy Apple products. However, as the company's sales figure skyrocket pulling profits up with them, one person's boycott will have little effect on Apple or Foxconn. (It took threatening mass suicides for Foxconn workers to get a pay raise!) But the least you can do is follow The iEconomy investigation, just so you know what it took to make all those iPhones and iPads to make it to America, all shiny and priced to move.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.