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Friday, 14 October 2011 15:15

The true cost of our iPhones and other toys


Some years ago it came to light that footballs and cricket bats we were buying for our children were made in Pakistan using child labour. The outcry was overwhelming. Now, in our disposable consumer electronics culture, where iPhones are changed every other year, we are forced to confront the reality of the suffering workers in China must endure so that we can enjoy our fancy lifestyle toys.

A few days ago, well known Apple-focused stage entertainer Mike Daisey appeared in an interview on Australian TV where he gave many viewers their first insight into the labour practices in China of Foxconn, the giant consumer electronics maker, which assembles the iPhones under contract for Apple.

Daisey, a former Apple fanboy, currently tours with his one-man show The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs which largely focuses on this very subject.

In his TV interview, Daisey talked about how he went to China on a tourist visa, where he visited a Foxconn plant and talked to workers, who told of working 16 hour shifts, seven days a week, performing mind numbing repetitive tasks that caused the onset of premature arthritic conditions.

What Daisy revealed is not exactly news.

Eighteen months ago, Apple, HP and Dell started conducting investigations into the working practices at Foxconn's massive Shenzen factory in China, which houses more than 400,000 workers, following a spate of worker suicides.

Under increased scrutiny from its major clients and the media, Foxconn officially promised to improve working conditions at its Shenzhen plant and increase the pay of workers.

However, as late as last month Foxconn was still in the news concerning its work practices at Shenzhen and elsewhere.

One of the great advantages of China for manufacturers is its ready supply of cheap human labour that can be made to work under slavish conditions that workers elsewhere would not put up with.

Sweatshop factories have enabled China to become a global manufacturing powerhouse, while affluent consumers in other countries enjoy the obscene fruits of virtual slave labour in the form of almost disposable consumer electronics gadgets like the iPhone, iPad and a variety of computer-based devices from big name manufacturers.

While some, like Daisey, may justifiably argue that we should be prepared to wear the additional cost of cage-free labour in our electronics just as we wear the additional cost of cage-free eggs, the fact is that consumers are now addicted to the idea of a $99 tablet computer.

Thus, Australians, like consumers in the rest of the developed world, have become electronics junkies waiting in line overnight at Apple stores for the latest toy that was fashioned out of the exploitation and misery of workers who probably couldn't buy that toy with a year's worth of wages.

At the same time, vendors are addicted to growth. They have to keep selling their toys in ever increasing numbers and at cheaper prices, continually superseding their products with new innovations and improved models. And it is the low-paid, exploited, Chinese worker who reaps the misery inflicted by the addictions at both ends of the supply chain.

Lately, the conversation had shifted to the use of industrial robots to replace workers performing debilitating repetitive low level tasks such as welding and assembly line work.

Foxconn, has a human workforce of more than 1 million at its various plants plus 10,000 robots. Over the next three years, the company intends to replace many of its low level workers with an astonishing 1 million robots.

If Foxconn is true to its word, then it raises some interesting questions.

If much of the sweatshop Chinese labour can be replaced with industrial robots, as Foxconn states, then why is there a need to operate out of China at all?

Surely a robot can operate just as cheaply and efficiently in a manufacturing plant in the US, Germany, Australia or any other place in the world with access to cheap power?

Perhaps we should all think about such matters the next time we spend our pocket money on the latest knick knack.

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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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