Foxconn and the ethics of the iPhone

I’m sure I’m the last person to realize that the spate of high profile suicides at Foxconn in China are connected with the factory that makes component electronics for Apple. But it’s true, and incontrovertible, and what am I going to do about it?

To some extent, it’s impossible not to be implicated in economic injustice. My new shoes, for instance, are made in China, and I doubt the workers who assembled them are making anything like what I would consider a living wage. Foxconn was paying its workers a maximum of $150 a month; in the wake of international scrutiny, they’ve increased that to (after a trial period, a possible maximum of) $300. Their workers eat and sleep on campus in massive dorms with multiple roommates, are submitted to demoralizing drills, and regularly work far more than the government regulated maximum of 38 hours monthly overtime, putting in upwards of 12 hour days for weeks when there’s a big order (say, the iPhone 4?).

I know that Aldi, where I buy most of my groceries, is a private company, and thus exempted from revealing details of their balance sheet; and that the price advantage they enjoy cannot come entirely from their utilitarian approach to product placement. It’s likely that they, too, commit economic injustice. I’m sure I don’t need to speak about my complicity with Big Oil like BP— I live in Detroit, where to live is to drive. And as far as complicity with injustice is concerned, I remain in America, which is currently suspending habeas corpus, prosecuting two meaningless wars and advocating for the summary execution of at least one of its own citizens without due process.

But there’s a difference between these, which have to do with circumstance of place and time (I live in the post-agricultural America, and cannot entirely avoid the evils of Empire and Oil), or with economic necessities like food and clothing, and the luxury purchase of an iPhone, a status symbol with little intrinsic value (locked into a commercially inferior voice network, no less), made by a boutique company knowingly contracting with a Chinese factory that commits economic injustices that drive its workers to suicide.

I would pre-emptively argue, against those who would point out that I will hypocritically continue to use my MacBook and multiple other electronic devices equally tied to unjust labor practices, that the only escape from being a hypocrite is to give in to evil. Just because an action is not comprehensive does not mean that it is wrong, or useless.

Is there any reason I shouldn’t let my contract expire and quit this farce?

2 thoughts on “Foxconn and the ethics of the iPhone”

  1. You already own an iPhone so the path of least damage is to keep the phone you have. Even a generic phone will probably be tainted by certain environmentally damaging components or unfair labor.

    As for the labor practices, the suicides are awful. The working environment sounds terrible too. But what sounds like a low wage here isn’t always a terribly wage there. I spent time in Sri Lanka years back and hung out with many people who worked in the Gap factories. Their standard of life was far better than most of their countrymen though their wages were appalling low by our standards.

    I’m not sure how to translate the various standards of life to grasp what’s bad and good, but I would say regardless you are right that you and I bear much of the responsibility for what is bad through our purchasing.

  2. In an absolute sense, the labor practices are unjust. In a relative sense, they’re pretty much par for the course. Good luck finding any products not made under similar circumstances. If you find a laptop or a phone made differently, let me know.

    As far as the suicides go, I think it’s probably much ado about nothing. I’m not great at reading the stats, but for a population of 320,000 (or something like that), the suicide rate compared to American populations in general is actually quite low. I think it’s a headline looking for a story.

    As much as it sucks, suicides tend to come and go in bunches. I remember one year when I was in high school when 5 kids in (or attached to in one way or another) my youth group killed themselves. Hopelessness spreads faster than hope, and one person making a hasty exit tends to affirm that tragic choice for other depressed people.

    I think precious little is actually known about this specific phenomenon, and to attach it to Apple is simply an attempt to generate a story by tarnishing the rep of the most popular girl in the middle school.

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