Consider the ethical price of that iPhone

We suspend our ethics when Apple launches a new phone. (AFP)

We suspend our ethics when Apple launches a new phone. (AFP)

Any committed foodie will wax lyrical about the value of provenance – the integrity of the food, the care and craft behind creating it. How long, then, before this middle-class preoccupation with quality, traceability and plain goodness of the things we buy extends into technology?

We suspend our ethics when Apple launches a new phone. That unboxing is a virgin moment, as if the phone morphed inside the box from the tiny sparkling seed Apple designer Jonathan Ive has planted.
Slide your finger through the Designed in California seal and your phone takes its first breath.

It is a supreme piece of packaging design, but the reality is far from an immaculate conception. Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer of the iPhone, has faced a steady stream of criticism and concerns, from poor working conditions to suicides.

Now the Shanghai Evening Post has published undercover journalist Wang Yu's detailed diary of working life at the Foxconn production plant. He lasted 10 days at the plant, seven of which were in training and three on shifts "marking placement points on the back plate".

Foxconn recruited 20 000 new workers in March to meet its production targets for the iPhone 5 and has to produce 57-million in one year, Wang's report stated.

No doubt much of the nuance has been lost in the translation that was published on micgadget.com, which bafflingly ended with the translators saying how excited they were about seeing the new iPhone 5.

Wang complains of having to work on 3 000 phones during a 10-hour shift and being paid only 27 yuan (about R36) for two hours' overtime: "An iPhone5 back plate moves in front of me almost every three seconds. I have to pick up the back plate and mark four position points using the oil-based paint pen and put it back on the running belt swiftly within three seconds with no errors. After repeating the same action for several hours, I have terrible neck ache and muscle pain in my arm.

Impression of a prison
"A new worker who sat opposite of me was exhausted and lay down for a short while. The supervisor noticed him. He punished him by making him stand in a corner for 10 minutes, like the old school days. We worked nonstop from midnight to 6am but were still asked to keep on working because the production line is based on a running belt and no one is allowed to stop. I'm ­starving and exhausted."

Dormitories smell of rubbish, sweat and foam and the reporter wrote of cockroaches in the wardrobes and dirty bedsheets. Non-profit organisation China Labour Watch reported at least 18 suicides at Foxconn plants in two years. As a result, dorm windows have been barred, which gives the impression of a prison. The facilities include a gym, canteen, hospital, library and playground, which Wang claims are underresourced or run-down.

Employees are told that if they set off the metal detectors in the high- security production floor they will be sacked on the spot. They claim one employee was dismissed for carrying a USB charging cable.

Wang said: "When I walked into the production floor after passing through the metal detector door, I heard loud sounds of machinery engines and got a very dense plastic smell. Our supervisor warned us: 'Once you sit down, you only do what you are told.' The supervisor showed us the back of the iPhone 5 and said: 'This is the new unleashed iPhone 5 back plate. You should be honoured at having the chance to produce it.'"

This is very far from being only Apple's problem, of course. Foxconn manufactures parts for just about every other consumer tech firm too (the company's most recent corporate social responsibility report from 2010 cites 935 000 employees, so it is enormous), including HP, Sony-Ericsson, Amazon and Dell. It makes the Kindle, Wii, iPhones, iPads and, until recently, made Xbox consoles.

Apple, as Foxconn's highest-profile client, and the company itself have pledged to improve housing and working conditions.

The latest concerns are over the use of student labourers to enable  meeting production demands. The Guardian has asked Foxconn to comment.

Samsung is also facing allegations of abuse and poor working conditions in its production plants, including hiring workers who are 16 and 17 years old. It is also battling to meet deadlines for new devices.

As long as there is massive demand, suppliers will fight to cut costs and deliver those products as cheaply as they can. As consumers, our own attitudes towards the quality and the true price of those products is the one thing we can try to address. There is no immaculate iPhone conception – just an exhausted team of Chinese labourers. – © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited

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