Apple, Foxconn and the Human Cost of Electronics Manufacturing in China

NEWS ANALYSIS: Apple's contract manufacturing at Foxconn is getting all of the attention, but the problem is far wider. If you want to find one source of the problem, look in the mirror.

The recent uproar about the conditions inChinese factories where Apple's iPhones, iPads and iPods are manufactured is getting a lot of attention, partly because of an article in the New York Times.

A great deal more attention is likely due to the lead story that appeared on CBS Sunday Morning on Jan. 29, in which a network reporter visited Shenzhen, China, site of the Foxconn factory where Apple's products are assembled.

The CBS segment graphically showed the suicide prevention nets at the factory, it showed workers reportedly as young as 12 who worked shifts as long as 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. It also reported on the death of one worker who died at work after a shift of more than 30 hours. There's no question that these conditions approach the emotional feeling of slavery, if not the legal definition. What's missing from the conversation is that Foxconn builds electronics products for a wide variety of companies, not just Apple.

In fact, there's a good chance that the smartphone in your pocket, the laptop on your desk or the tablet in your briefcase was assembled by Foxconn. If it wasn't, it was probably assembled by another Chinese contract manufacturer that operates in a manner similar to Foxconn. Regardless of what company has its logo on your consumer electronics, it's a virtual certainty that it was manufactured in China in a factory very similar to the one where your iPad was made.

So before we go dumping on Apple for the conditions at Foxconn, maybe it's time for a reality check. As is usually the case, things with Foxconn aren't what they necessarily seem. First of all, while Foxconn does indeed have factories all over China, it also has facilities in a lot of other places, including in the United States and Europe. In addition, Foxconn isn't the only contract electronics manufacturer with tens of thousands of Chinese employees working long hours at low wages. That's pretty much the name of the game in the consumer electronics industry.

Think of your iPhone as you would a hamburger-the meat was once part of a living, breathing animal. Its life was taken so you could have lunch. This is the price for the type of life we lead, whether it's the price that we pay to buy something once living that's now a package of hamburger or the price we pay for a brand-new iPhone.

Your iPhone was once a collection of parts that is often assembled by children who will never have time to play, get a decent education or know much about anything except assembling electronic components until they are too old or worn out to keep working. We bought that iPhone at a great price without a thought of what the social costs are in a country half a world away.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...