Dying For An iPhone

Who made your iPhone? Sure, the back of the box says "Designed in California" - but who were the men and women who assembled your phone?

Designed In California

How well are they treated? Are they paid well? Are they trapped in a living hell where many of them feel the only way out is suicide?

This is the question posed by Dr Jenny Chan in her upcoming book Dying for an iPhone: The Hidden Struggle of China’s Workers which she talked about in Oxford earlier this week.

You can read for yourself some of the reports written about factory conditions of iPhone workers, including by Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour. You can watch the BBC's Panorama programme Apple's Broken Promises.

I'm not particularly interested in discussing the veracity of the claims - nor whether this is a painful but necessary economic stepping stone. I'll be discussing the points raised in the discussion about how we might go about improving the lives of the people slaving away to produce our electronics. As with my blog post on Communist Robots, the views expressed are not necessarily mine and are deliberately unattributed.

Firstly, it's worth noting that Apple and its partners are making progress on workers' right.

Apple has banned the practice of bonded labour - where new recruits are charged a fee - from its factories.

In its latest audit of factory conditions, the iPhone maker said that any such fee must be paid by its supplier and not the employee.

Apple began the audits following criticism of the working conditions in some of its factories.
"Apple bans 'bonded servitude' for factory workers" - BBC News 2015-02-12

Given that we believe Apple's suppliers - Foxconn - are deliberately mistreating their workers, what are our options for engendering change in these organisations? These are money-hungry companies desperate to cut every corner and bypass every regulatory edict in the face of overwhelming profit.

Broadly speaking, there are 4 major routes to change.

Agitating For Change

Apple trades on its reputation. Its brand relies on customer loving Apple.

It is imperative that the voices of those who are suffering are heard by those who are funding the suffering.

This can be achieved via protests and other methods of consciousness raising - such as posting on social media, holding talks with concerned parties, and encouraging people to watch documentaries.

Pension Funds

Some of the largest investors in Apple are Teachers' Pensions. Chances are, if you have a pension, you're invested in Apple.

We outsource our morality to pension funds. We ask them to provide the best possible return on investment, and we close our eyes to how they do it. Perhaps we should be lobbying teachers - and our own pension fund managers - to insist that Apple and Foxconn behave more ethically. Would it lead to a lower ROI to pay people a living wage? Maybe. Or would a more generous attitude pay dividends by increasing sales?

Conflict Minerals

The mobile phone industry has a large problem with conflict minerals. In particular Coltan is regularly mined by corrupt warlords and used to finance ongoing wars.

There is hope though - regulators worldwide have enacted laws to curb the sale of conflict minerals. It's imperfect, but it's a start.

Continual lobbying of law makers and phone companies has helped improve the lives of tens of thousands of people. There's no reason why the same can't happen with Apple.


There are two approaches to unionising. The first is, somewhat obviously, getting the Foxconn workers into a strong and recognised labour union. This is not without its problems.

Foxconn workers report that they are victimised and harassed for standing up for their rights. The unions which are afforded to them often report directly to their abusive bosses.

So, what other options are there? Ask Apple workers in the USA and Europe to stand in solidarity with the people who make the products that they sell. Would they be willing to agitate for change within Apple and also explain the problem to potential customers entering the stores?

In some cases, this has already happened - Apple Store employees join with protesters to make their displeasure known.

Organizers picket an Apple store in San Francisco - carrying placards showing the names and ages of the Foxconn suicide victims Photo credit: Chinese Progressive Association San Francisco.

Organizers picket an Apple store in San Francisco - carrying placards showing the names and ages of the Foxconn suicide victims
Photo credit: Chinese Progressive Association San Francisco.

It's a big ask. And it leads us into the final problem.

Getting People to Care

It's really hard to get people to care. It's one of the hardest things about trying to get people to join a cause, any cause. There are so many worthy causes in the world and we can't devote our time or emotional energy to all of them. Inevitably, people choose causes which affect them directly.

For most Western consumers, China is too far away to worry about. If you think your own job sucks, you don't want to spend time thinking about the depravity, squalor, and misery of those who make your gadgets. And if it means those shiny electronic toys cost a few dollars more...

As I'm fond of saying, we often treat our phones with more intimacy than our lovers. We caress them, rub our cheeks to them, and whisper our most intimate secrets into them. How can we stare at a screen multiple times per day and have so little regard for the plight of those who assemble our devices?

It's Working

All these efforts are ongoing - and they seem to be making a positive difference.

Around the globe, Apple employees are united in bringing equality, respect for human rights and protection of the environment to the deepest levels of our supply chain. While we have made significant progress, gaps still exist, and there is more work to do. We know that workers are counting on us. We will not stop until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Jeff Williams, senior vice president of operations at Apple

3 thoughts on “Dying For An iPhone

  1. I'm curious: why is the focus so squarely on Apple? Apple seems to be one of the few phone manufacturers that has a Code of Conduct for its suppliers, that audits those suppliers, and that reports on the results.

    Every one of the Top 10 phone manufacturers uses FoxConn to do assembly, not just Apple. Apple — as we seem to be continually reminded when the subject isn't "ethics in smart phones" — is a minority vendor worldwide.

    Are the 75% of the smart phone market consisting of Android phones (and thus, not manufactured by Apple) issue free? Are the even larger number of lower-end phones (also not manufactured by Apple) problem-free somehow?

    I wish that Apple would bring its manufacturing back to the US, myself. That would solve any ethical problems, but FoxConn would still be there, not treating its workers a bit better.

    1. Terence Eden says:

      Steven & David, you both have very similar questions - so I'll answer them.

      Apple is FoxConn's largest customer. As the iPhone is the most visible product of Foxconn, I think it's a useful framing device for most people.

      I'm not saying that the other devices and manufacturers are any better. That said, I'm not sure any of them trade on their reputation for excellence as much as Apple.

      Finally, I'm not the one writing the book and I didn't choose the title.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Steven says:

    What a ridiculous article. You talk like Apple is the only company Foxconn makes products for or as if Apple owns or controls Foxconn. Apple is the only company of the 100s that Foxconn makes products that has made multiple visit to try and improve conditions. They are also making efforts to move manufacturing to the US. Did you forget to mention that? Of course putting Apple in your book title or article title will get all the linkbait you are hoping for. Terrible article and most likely a terrible book.

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