Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, is Apple’s biggest supplier and conditions in its factory cities in China have driven workers to suicide. Jenny Chan tells us more about life on the factory floor
According to our figures, there were 23 cases of suicide between January 2010 and December 2011. The suicides peaked in January 2010 but since then the government in Beijing has warned local media agencies to stop reporting the number of suicides. The point is that Apple wants to make its products quickly: they transfer the time pressure directly to the frontline workers. We can trace the direct link between Apple as a buyer and Foxconn as a supplier. The unit price of the Apple order is something we never know. The suppliers really want to get the order because the volume is huge.
I would say this is a very complicated problem. The global supply chain is a big issue; on the other hand it’s also the lack of enforcement of the law in an “export paradise” like China. China has had very comprehensive labour laws since 1995. A 12-hour day means four hours of compulsory overtime and this is against the law.
Until the beginning of this century we still believed that electronics workers were working in nice, clean, air conditioned places. We started looking at “iPod City” – Foxconn’s factory in Longhua – in 2006. Longhua is still the largest Foxconn factory, with over 400,000 workers. This is the single largest factory ever in the history of China. The iPhone came to the market in 2007 and has had five models in only four years. In 2009 a production worker at Longhua committed suicide because of what we believe to be abuse from security guards at Foxconn. One of the iPhones was missing and he was blamed and questioned in isolation. It was at this moment that we started to pay more attention to the suicides. I must emphasise that this was the moment when iPhones had to be produced at the highest speed. In the summer of 2010 some students took summer jobs at Foxconn. We learnt that the factory never stops for a second. When Foxconn said that they were going to raise wages, this wasn’t true. After it raised wages (it’s now 1,350 inland and 1,500 on the coast) it started to deduct food and accommodation costs – previously they’d been free.
When workers call the 24-hour hotline that was set up, to report problems, their names, staff card numbers, are taken by the so-called counsellors. The workers are then questioned by the foreman: “What’s wrong with you? If you don’t feel happy, just go – we have many people queueing outside who want to come in.” We want Apple to be transparent and really accountable. And also to be responsible to consumers: we don’t want to be complicit in what you could call almost the crimes of production. The dormitories of Foxconn factories are all surrounded by suicide nets. That is truly depressing.
Jenny Chan is on the advisory board of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM)