Public demand for the latest gadgets supposes that we condone the employment standards in the far east, but isn't it time we all took a stance to stop them?
The story of how the latest technology is made is a story of vast factories. And few factories are as vast as the Longhua Science and Technology Park in Shenzen, China. Estimates put the number of people working at the facility anywhere between 230,000 and 450,000. At that highest estimate, it employs more people than there are in Leeds.
The facility is owned by Foxconn, a company whose client list reads like a who’s who of technology – Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba to name just a few.
Until recently, few people had heard of Foxconn. Then, in 2010, a slew of employee suicides made it the item of headline curiosity. That year, 14 Foxconn employees took their lives, but most media outlets vastly misrepresented the numbers.
The Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention puts the suicide rate in China at 22.2 people per 100,000. At Foxconn, despite all the headlines, that figure drops to 1.5 people per 100,000. To look at it another way, people employed by Foxconn are 15 times less likely to commit suicide compared to the wider Chinese population.
As can so often be the case, the headlines and the hype had missed the inconvenient story; at Foxconn, people are less likely to commit suicide. This unhelpful approach was repeated and echoed ad nauseam.
News outlets soon linked the story to Apple; fascinated by the idea of this huge factory that churned out hundreds of thousands of iPads and iPhones. In response to negative headlines about the company that makes its devices, Apple announced an independent audit of the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu.
The Fair Labor Association (FLA), which carried out the audit, released its findings in late March. In its report, the FLA said it had found “serious and pressing noncompliances” with both its own code of conduct and Chinese labour law.
It said that working hours were often beyond legal limits and also cited a number of health and safety violations. The FLA said that there were now “specific milestones” for Foxconn to meet and that it would be monitoring progress. Both Apple and Foxconn have agreed to ongoing assesments by the FLA.
For Apple’s part, the company’s supplier responsibility reports for the past two years highlight some of the issues it is looking to address.
To give two examples, in 2011 Apple found that 24 of its supplier facilities conducted pregnancy tests before employment, while 18 facilities screened candidates or current workers for hepatitis B. In five facilities, Apple discovered a total of 19 cases of underage labour. The company said the facilities had “insufficient controls” to verify age.
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