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Human rights, Technology

iPhone, therefore I guilty?

Should we care about who makes our technology?

Technology makes life easier, for some.

A new campaign by activist group The Sum of Us is calling on Apple to overhaul the way its suppliers treat their workers in time for the launch of the iPhone 5. But why all this attention on Apple? It’s definitely not the only tech company with questions to answer. Every company that makes any kind of technology device is having them made in China, and often at the same factories. Foxconn also manufacturers the Kindle, Xbox, Wii and the PlayStation, so why aren’t Sony, Microsoft and Amazon also part of the campaign? Apple is one of the most recognisable brands in the world, but so are these companies and a coordinated campaign across the industry might achieve more.

News stories have been coming out about suicides, workers dying on assembly lines, nets attached to buildings to prevent deaths, explosions and even riots.The name Foxconn is now known around the world as the infamous factory for the iPhone. It may be a coincidence or not, but it seems that many in the media have decided that the time has come to shine a light on Apple and some of its businesses practices or more specifically those of its suppliers like Foxconn.

It may be that with the death of Steve Jobs, there’s an expectation of a new openness at Apple and a sense that the company can now be called to task for the way it does business. New boss Tim Cook is now running the show and is unlikely to retain the same grip on the public face of the company and its official utterances.

Mike Daisey has been touring the world with his solo show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs where he expresses his devotion to all things Apple and the awful reality  of the way the iPhones and Apple devices are created in huge assembly line factories in China. His show has made an impact as he detailed the conditions for workers at these factories, long work hours, repetitive tasks and employee suicides.

The photos of battery hen-like assembly lines and stories of employee deaths make for dramatic headlines. Realistically these are a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of employees working on creating all types of technology for virtually every tech brand on the market.

President Obama asked the questio why the iPhone couldn’t be made in the US? The answer is that there’s simply nowhere else in the world apart from China that has the available workforce in the hundreds of thousands that can operate on the scale required to product gadgets in such vast quantities.

So should we care about where and how our devices are built? A bit of first world guilt won’t change anything anyway. The simple answer is yes, of course we should. These are human beings and anyone with access to the most basic notion of empathy can feel bad for people living and working in these conditions.

The complex answer is yes, but how to tackle globalisation, the disparity between developed and developing countries in terms of wages and conditions, the speed of innovation of new and better devices and the cost implications of changing supply chains on a large scale.

Technology companies need to be held to account for the way they conduct their business and public scrutiny will hurt them. Expecting people to boycott a single device or a single company like Apple is unrealistic and takes the heat off the other brands.

This campaign is far from over. The suppliers will take notice if the big brands want change. Perhaps if everyone stops obsessing about Apple and makes it an issue for tech brands in general, something may be achieved. That shiny new gadget comes with the memory of the workers who handled it first. It’s up to us first-world iConsumers to demand better from our tech giants…



3 thoughts on “iPhone, therefore I guilty?

  1. I have been struggling with this myself. Making the issue even more complicated is the fact that Apple products have revolutionized the market for technology for the disabled. A few years ago we were looking into computer speech devices for on of my kids. The cost was at least $8 to $10,000 plus. Today there is literally an app for that for $200 that you can run on an i touch.

    Posted by tomsimcoe | 1 February 2012, 11:31 pm
    • This is a good example of why expecting people to boycott such products is unrealistic as they have many uses not just for entertainment. Having said that, I think public scrutiny and campaigns can help put the focus on an issue. A lot has been achieved in the environmental footprint of technology in terms of phasing out nasty chemicals and plastics, even Greenpeace says this in its green tech reports so it’s worth pushing for better supplier standards.

      Posted by PaleInk | 2 February 2012, 2:06 pm
  2. Few would argue against the idea that human rights are more important than profits and that these rights are actually enshrined in legislation all around the Western world. However, when we start examining the rights of workers from the developing world, this hallowed charter of rights begins to recede as underemployment, unscrupulous governments and corporations move in to maximise profit at the expense of the weak and poor work forces. But we still buy our gadgetry and complain if it’s too pricey. The very reason why technology like iPhones and iPads are so ubiquitous is because the labour force is paid pennies to produce our toys. In a sense, their pre-existing poverty is our subsidy. Understanding that capitalism is amoral helps make sense of this uncomfortable situation and it can be worth boycotting some products to drive home this point. Nike is still one of the bad boys in Asia but they did change their work practices when the boycotts and cameras hit them in the 90s. Maybe it’s Apple’s turn?

    Posted by Teachit | 2 February 2012, 7:20 pm

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