I wonder what Siri would say about those workers' health

At the Foxxconn complex in Shenzhen, China, workers assemble electronic products, including iPhones. (Kin Cheung / Associated Press, File)

I wonder what Siri—the Apple iPhone’s know-it-all voice-recognition helpmate—would say if asked about worker health and safety conditions in the factory from which she was born. Recent reports about labor conditions in those factories would suggest either scared silence or outrage and frustration.

The New York Times is reporting that Apple Computer, which last year manufactured nearly all of its products overseas, including 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads, and 59 million computers and other gadgets, is not likely to return any of its production facilities to the United States. According to the report, President Obama himself, at a dinner with Silicon Valley tech leaders last February, asked Steve Jobs how the United States could get iPhone manufacturing back home. Jobs’ blunt answer: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Until about 10 years ago, most Apple products were “made in the U.S.A.” but by 2004 the company shifted most of its production overseas, primarily to China and other Asian nations. The reason for this, the article claims, isn’t simply the cheaper labor costs in Asia. It is the manufacturer’s ability to more quickly scale production up and down as needed, as well as having better supply chains for the many components that go into each Apple product.

Apple is a global company, employing 43,000 men and women in the United States and 20,000 overseas. An additional 700,000, most of them outside of the U.S., work for Apple’s contractors at all stages of development, including product assembly.

These shifts in manufacturing are driven by the following reality. The iPhone is assembled at Foxconn City in Wuhan, China, a manufacturing complex with 230,000 workers, where, according to the Times article, “over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day.” Such conditions are a big part of why some Asian factories can scale up and down as needed. Strong worker protections in the United States prevent this type of setup here at home.

These shifts, driven by the bottom line and, of course, by our society’s desire to have more and better technology at an affordable price, come at a human cost that is now receiving greater attention in the West.

Recent investigations into worker health and safety at Foxconn (which produces a broad range of Apple and non-apple products including the Amazon Kindle, Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Sony’s PlayStation) are another reason why we are unlikely to see hi-tech production in the U.S. at overseas volume. According to one report, at the Chengdu facility where Foxconn assembles the iPad, workers faced “a grueling 80 to 100 hours of overtime” monthly. The report, from the Hong Kong-based advocacy group Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), also documented workers standing on their feet for 14 hours a day and living in squalid dormitories.

Worker suicides have also been a problem at Foxconn plants. Workers have been asked to sign anti-suicide pledges and nets have been installed under some Foxconn buildings. Some blame the repetitive and isolating nature of the hi-tech manufacturing lines. In another worker health and safety episode, last year at Wintek, an Apple supplier in China, 137 workers were injured after exposure to n-hexane, a toxic chemical used to manufacture glass screens for the iPhone.

Apple has consistently said that it is working with its overseas manufacturing partners and suppliers to make sure they “follow Apple’s strict code of conduct.” In a recent email to company employees, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that the company’s Supplier Responsibility team has “led more than 200 audits at facilities” throughout their supply chain to “make sure that working conditions are safe and just.” Apple also recently became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit working to eliminate sweatshop conditions around the globe, which will allow outside monitors into Apple’s overseas factories, including Foxconn.

Just over a century ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 people, mostly poor Jewish and Italian immigrant women and girls as young as 14 years old, died in a horrific fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. As the building caught fire, many were “trapped in the burning sweatshop and many died trying to force the locked doors open. Others threw themselves from the windows.” Fire hoses were unable to reach above the building’s sixth floor—the fire burned on floors 8, 9, and 10—and most efforts to rescue the workers were unsuccessful. Following the fire, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and other Progressive Era reformers pushed for stronger workplace safety laws. In the months after the fire, “the New York State legislature passed 36 laws to regulate workplace fire safety and ventilation, and to set minimum standards for working women and children.” Partly because of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, U.S. workers still have strong health and safety protections.

Because of China’s politics, it is unlikely that rapid change will come unless companies and governments who do business in China exert their significant pressure. Apple’s membership in the Fair Labor Association is an important first step; hopefully, other hi-tech companies who use overseas suppliers and manufacturers will quickly follow suit. If the demand for social justice in occupational health and safety were as great as our demand for a new iPhone or other tech gadget, we’d live in a much safer and healthier world.

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