One by one, they started jumping. The spree of suicides went on for an 11 month period in 2010. During that time, 18 Foxconn workers attempted to take their own lives; 14 of them were successful (Foxconn worker, Pomfret). What was causing these unfortunate deaths? The answer is that it is difficult to know for sure. Although the number of deaths was certainly alarming, there is some evidence that indicates that it may not have been the result of what was happening at Foxconn factories. For instance, Foxconn’s suicide rate per 100,000 in 2010 was 1.5. In comparison, China’s overall suicide rate per 100,000 was 22.23 in the same year (China’s Suicide rate, AFP). Tom Foremski, of ZDNet, even went as far as to say that working at Foxconn dramatically reduces people’s risk of suicide (Media gets its facts wrong, Foremski). Whether or not this is valid is debatable. However, one thing is certain. 14 people took their own lives. This streak of suicides brought Foxconn into the spotlight of the American public. Soon, almost all major news outlets were running a story on the supplier. People wanted to know what was going on at these factories, and whether or not they were providing adequate living conditions for their employees. But, the public was not only interested in Foxconn itself. It was equally, if not more, interested in one of Foxconn’s most high profile partners: Apple.
Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. (Foxconn) was founded in 1974. The company mainly deals with original design manufacturing. This means that companies make contracts with Foxconn to manufacture products that they have designed. With partners like Acer, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nintendo, Samsung, and Sony just to name a few, you would be hard pressed to find a person that has not used a product that was made at a Foxconn plant. 2011 revenues were over US$95 billion, which represents a 61% increase from 2010. Profits increased 7% to US$2.45 billon over the same time period (Worlds Biggest Companies, CNN). Although it has factories in Brazil, India, Malaysia, Mexico, and parts of Europe, it is most strongly associated with China. In fact, Foxconn is the single largest private employer in China. Foxconn is not just a job for these employees. Instead, it is a way of life. The company has campuses at its factories where all employees live. They have barracks for people to sleep, and cafeterias for people to eat. Employees very rarely go home to visit friends and family. And while these conditions may not seem ideal, Foxconn does provide a job to people who may otherwise not have been able to procure one. Approximately 75% of Foxconns massive 1.2 million person workforce is employed at one of its 13 Chinese locations. Despite the fact that Foxconn produces a wide variety of goods for a long list of companies, Foxconn is most closely associated with Apple Inc..
Apple Inc. was established in April of 1976 as Apple Computer, Inc.. The company had humble beginnings in the garage of one its founders, Steve Jobs. At first, the company was only known as a computer maker. Its Macintosh was the first personal computer introduced for home use. However, over the years Apple started to change and evolve. The Apple the most people know today is synonymous with devices like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Over the past decade, Apple has become wildly successful. Most recently, it became the most highly valued company in the world, with a current market capitalization of US$ 695 billion (Google Finance). The company currently has 357 retail locations in countries all around the world. Apple made US$ 33.8 billion in the fiscal year of 2011 while extracting US$25.9 billion in profits (Investor.Apple.com). The company does not actually manufacture any of its own products, and instead relies on outside companies to produce its designs.
Conditions at Foxconn
Working at a Foxconn factory is difficult. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) recently published its year long, 3 factory, audit of Foxconn facilities in China. There is no way to sugar- coat the findings. “All three factories violated the FLA code standard of 60 working hours per week as well as the Chinese legal limits of 40 working hours per week and 36 hours maximum of overtime per month. it found that during peak production season, the average hours worked per week exceeded 60 hours per worker. In addition, there were periods in which some employees worked more than seven days in a row without the required 24 hours off (FLA)”. Not only were hours long, but compensation was minimal. In its iEconomy series, the New York Times calculated that the average Foxconn factory worker makes between $1.50 and $2.20 an hour. This equates to approximately $17 a day for most employees (iEconomy, Economix Editors). Finally there are horror stories of terrible working conditions in the plants. On May 20th of 2011, there was an explosion that required dozens of fire trucks to extinguish. Two workers were found dead while a dozen others were injured (Foxconn Explosion, Diaz). Additionally, some employees say that they have stood for so long that their legs swelled up and they were no longer able to walk. Some reports have cited multiple deaths due to exhaustion (Another Foxconn Employee, China Labor Watch). Foxconn has also been accused of improperly disposing of toxic chemicals. Two employees in 2011 were injured after being ordered to use hazardous chemicals to clean iPhone screens. Finally, there have been reports of underage workers at the facilities. These infractions all amount to what are improper and unacceptable standards for those who live and work at Foxconn. An individual should not have to fear for his safety in order to properly assemble a product like the ones made in these facilities.
Ill will towards Apple began to grow with every new report of the conditions at Foxconn. This situation is eerily similar to the public backlash that Nike faced in the last 1990’s. Both companies has amazing brand recognition, both companies contracted their manufacturing to international facilities, and both companies attracted a fashion-focused crowd, which is notoriously concerned with brand image. Both companies had a lot to lose. Ultimately, Nike decided that the labor conditions of another company’s factories where of no concern to it. This approach worked out in the worst possible way for Nike as it swap it’s sales nose dive. This is where the similarities of the two companies ends. Apple chose a different path. It acknowledged that even though Foxconn was its own entity that was capable of policing itself, something had to be done. It starts with the FLA audit. Not only is Apple a paying member of the association, but it was the company that requested the year long audit in the first place. The examination was no publicity stunt. It was praised by experts who called it thorough (Experts Say, Greenhouse). Furthermore, Apple worked with the FLA and Foxconn to vastly improve conditions at the factories. Foxconn agreed to implement numerous changes by July of 2013. To start, no worker will labor for more than the Chinese limit of 49 hours per week. Some experts have speculated that this move will force the company to hire thousands of new employees to maintain production (Electronic Giant Vowing, Greenhouse). Foxconn has also promised that even though employees will work less, pay will not decline. In fact, the company will be increasing wages for entry-level workers by as much as 25% (Foxconn increases, Chang). Tim Cooke, CEO of Apple, even visited Foxconn factories to see working conditions for himself. While these may just relatively small changes, it is a start. And it is a start that will have a tangible effect on the lives of the people that work at Foxconn factories.
Something is Wrong
Yes, what happened in the Foxconn factories was terrible. But something else is wrong. This mess has been almost entirely pinned on the shoulders of Apple. Its almost as if Apple owns Foxconn. I would not be surprised if most of the general public believed that Apple was the one that owned and operated the Chinese factories in question. The reality is that it does not. Apple is a partner of Foxconn. They outsource production to this firm. I truly believe, especially in this day and age, that a company in Apple’s position bears some responsibility for what its partners do. Although what was done cannot be erased, I give credit to Apple and beginning to correct the issues that were found in the FLA audit. I by no means intend to shift the focus off of Apple, but this begs the question: What about all of Foxconn’s other partners? Foxconn produces over 40% of all the world’s electronics. That really is a staggering figure. More than 4 out of every 10 devices in the world are manufactured by one company (Electronic Giant, Greenhouse). The Xbox, Playstation, and Wii on which you play video games; those were produced in Foxconn factories. The TV to which you hook those systems up; it was made in a Foxconn factory. The Kindle or Nook on which you read your most recent book; those, too, was made by Foxconn. So where is Microsoft? Where is Sony? Nintendo? Samsung? Amazon? Barnes & Noble? The answer is that they are nowhere to be found. When reached for comment, Barnes & Noble replied “We don’t comment on our supply chain vendors”. Lenevo, another PC manufacturer, responded with a general PDF on sustainability. Samsung gave no response at all. Microsoft posts summarized versions of company audits while Amazon does not release any information at all. HP’s page on its website devoted to working conditions has not been updated for over two years. This is the problem. This is what I find to be unacceptable. These are all companies with the power to change things. They have the ability to make reforms the same way that Apple is doing. And yet, for the most part, they have fallen silent. The back of almost every Apple product is brandished with the phrase “ Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”. The company is deeply intertwined with the East Asian nation. Whether or not Apple has actual factories in the country doesn’t really matter. The simple truth is that if it benefits in some way from the work of employees in that country, they should be responsible, in part, for the welfare of those workers. I think that this concept is something that the people at Apple have started to realize. But why haven’t others?