Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

Summary: Will global media attention on stressful working conditions at electronics manufacturers result in "fair trade" computers and gadgets?

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TOPICS: iPhone, Mobility
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A Fair Trade notebook? - image by Damien Van Achter

A Fair Trade notebook? - image by Damien Van Achter

The suicides at Foxconn have highlighted the issue of highly stressful working conditions in the global electronics industry. Foxconn has responded with psychologists, punch bags, swimming pools, and asking employees to promise not to kill themselves.

But these moves do nothing to change the actual working conditions. Suicide numbers are a big red herring because even if they go down, huge numbers of workers will still suffer from low wages, long hours, and many other tough and unhealthy working conditions.

A recent BBC documentary series, "Blood, Sweat and Luxuries" took six young British consumers and placed them exotic locations working in the same jobs as locals, and having to survive on the same wages.

It's an eye opening series because it showed the horrible work conditions that billions of people face daily, every week, for years, and decades. These were strong, healthy, young British adults, yet they would pass out from the back breaking work, suffer panic attacks, and many other maladies, after just a few hours on the job.

They carried huge amounts of dirt in Ghana's gold fields; they processed leather in stinking abattoirs in Ethiopia; they dug deep holes in coffee plantations; and they had to work in an electronics factory in the Philippines where workers prepared tiny components for disk drives, processing one component every 3 seconds.

If they even took a moment to glance up from their tasks, or be distracted, they would fall behind in their quota and have their wages docked. It was incredible how much work had to be done for so little money by so many people. And the reason they were paid so little is that the electronics factory had to accept tiny profit margins in order to win its contracts.

All the large tech companies such as Apple, Nokia, Dell, etc have agreements with their suppliers that they do not employ children, and that they will abide by certain standards to protect workers. But it's not clear how these are monitored, enforced, or how much in common they share across the electronics industry.

What is common across the electronics industry is a relentless focus on reducing manufacturing costs, and the largest manufacturing cost is labor; which is why employees are pushed to work faster, while maintaining high quality work, and at the lowest wages acceptable.

We reap the benefits in the form of cheap digital gadgets, gizmos, and computers. We have absolutely no idea about all the blood, sweat, and human suffering that went into creating our digital devices.

For the six young Brits that took part in that five week program, the experience was life changing. On their return they made big changes in their life styles, some changed their diets, and they all changed their buying habits. Some raised money and collected clothes and books for the families they met during their stay. And they found a new respect for Fair Trade goods.

One of them said that she used to dismiss Fair Trade coffee as some kind of marketing ploy, a trendy fashion. Now she doesn't, and is happy to pay extra because she knows it does make a difference in the lives of many people.

Would you buy a Fair Trade iPhone or Android smartphone? Would you buy a Fair Trade Dell or HP PC if there were such choices? And how much extra would you be willing to pay?

And more importantly, what would it take for you to be assured that the Fair Trade premium was making a difference in the lives of electronics workers?

It wasn't that long ago when PCs typically cost $5,000 and lots of people paid it willingly. These days you can pick up powerful notebooks for under $1000, and netbooks for under $400. And a $100 smartphone is more powerful than PCs from just a few years ago.

Surely, we should be able to afford to pay a Fair Trade premium on electronics without too much suffering on our part.

And hopefully, the global media attention on the Foxconn suicides will result in improved working conditions for millions of electronics workers, and Fair Trade electronics goods will become commonplace.


Topics: iPhone, Mobility

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55 comments
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  • Only an idiot would buy it.

    iPhone?
    That darn thing has fake encryption.

    http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hardware/ubuntu-lucid-lynx-1004-can-read-your-iphones-secrets/8424?tag=mantle_skin;content
    ssj6akshat
    • It should do very well with current Apple consumers then!

      @ssj6akshat
      If Apple has proven one thing it is that selling to idiots is very profitable!
      NonZealot
  • I will gladly pay

    for a fair smartphone(more likely a Nokia) or computer. However i need to be sure that the premium price i would pay for such device benefit to the worker. Because a company such as Apple (or Sony or even Microsoft) is already making its customer pay a premium price without any benefit for the worker who built the products.
    Thus i need to be sure that the premium price, i am ready to pay won't be used to increase profits of companies which already big enough profits.
    timiteh
    • Paying more only helps your conscience, not workers.

      @timiteh I've lived in developing nations, sometimes for years, and I'm going to tell you one thing: even if the extra money you paid to MS, Apple, or Sony went to the factory that actually produced the product, virtually none of that money would get to the workers. Every single one of them would still be making $5-6 a day for 70 hour weeks. Your money would go into the manager's new BMW, and that car might be worth more than the worker would make in a working lifetime.

      What's the solution? I'm not bright enough to say, really. Maybe tying "fair trade" wages to GDP per person?
      daengbo
  • I won't buy Apple products because of this

    Apple can choose to continue killing innocent people in the name of profit or it can cut to the front of the donor line and get a heart like Jobs did with his liver. Which will Apple choose? Something tells me it will continue to be unsafe working at an Apple Foxconn plant but hey, you'll be able to pull that iPad out of your pocket (oops, it isn't portable enough) to show that you have more money than brains so good on ya!
    NonZealot
    • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

      @NonZealot
      You are a disgusting human.

      To take a tragedy like this to push your personal agenda makes you a pig.

      This company makes electronics for almost all the major electronics vendors but you single out Apple because you have a beef.

      We don't know all the facts about what is going on at Foxconn yet so in the meantime try and develop some class.

      Your hero,
      maskman01
      • I'll take that as a compliment

        @maskman01
        When I get called a pig from someone with a moral compass as messed up as an Apple zealot's, I take that as a compliment.

        And I single out Apple because [b]all[/b] of these tragic deaths are happening to people who work on Apple products. The combination of Apple's secrecy police (who are probably responsible for some of these deaths and are covering them up as suicides) and Jobs insisting on them working crazy hours for no pay make Apple responsible for these tragedies but I wouldn't expect a heartless Apple apologist like yourself to understand that. Try to develop a soul.
        NonZealot
      • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

        @NonZealot

        So a guy who has a single Apple device and the remainder are a mix of Ubuntu and MS is an Apple Zealot? Wow.

        Between that comment and your opinion formed on this issue you have displayed no ability to perform analytical thinking.

        I stick with my assessment. You are a disgusting human being looking for an opportunity to push your personal vendetta. You don't care how classless you are doing it.

        This issue is bigger then Apple or any other tech company.

        Grow up.
        maskman01
      • And I stick with my assessment

        @maskman01 <br>You are a disgusting, soulless Apple apologist.<br><br><i>This issue is bigger then Apple or any other tech company.</i><br><br>But with $50 billion in the bank and a market cap larger than any other tech company in the world, Apple is in a unique position to actually do something about it. But they don't. They, like you, are soulless jerks who don't care about the blood they have on their hands as long as it means another dollar in their bank account. No amount of soap is going to wash that blood out from under your fingernails.</i>
        NonZealot
      • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

        @NonZealot

        I feel sorry for you.

        You don't really get the issue. I thought it was just you salivating at the mouth for an opportunity to trash Apple. Looks like I was wrong. You are just too dumb to get the situation.

        My apologies. Now that I understand your limitations I'll go easier on you.

        Your hero,
        maskman01
      • Apple is an easy target...

        @maskman01

        No sacrifice for NZ to preach from his soap box and declare he will never buy from a company he already hates.
        oncall
      • I accept your apology

        @maskman01
        [i]My apologies[/i]

        Glad you've seen the error of your ways. Being the classy kind of guy that I am, I accept your apology. :)

        PS I love how you think that your little insults affect me in the least! :)
        NonZealot
      • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

        @NonZealot

        ...and thank-you for proving my point.

        Your hero,
        maskman01
      • Likewise

        @maskman01
        Thanks for proving [b]my[/b] point!
        NonZealot
      • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

        @NonZealot

        Which was?
        maskman01
      • @my hero

        @maskman01
        That you still think your little insults hurt my feelings. I'm still here buddy!! :)
        NonZealot
  • RE: Foxconn suicides: Time for fair trade electronics? Would you buy a fair trade iPhone?

    It's a bit unfair to single out Apple for criticism here, anything that's made outside of the USA or Europe, and isn't stamped FairTrade is made by slaves working in similar conditions, often worse.

    The BBC documentary is worth watching, its a shocking wake-up call showing the price the worlds' poor pay to provide us with cheap consumer goods.
    AndyPagin
  • How has Fair Trade worked...

    For coffee? Coffee seems simple enough (compared maybe to assembling parts from around the world for a computer). From what little I have read it really hasn't had a large impact. Probably because while you or I might choose Fair trade while standing in line for Starbucks for our home coffee, the big purchasers, like McDonalds, are the ones who could really make a difference. Likewise an individual buying a single PC might opt for fair trade but the ones who could really make a difference are the ones who buy PC's by the 1000s and for them only one thing really matters: bottom line price.

    Well, for myself yes I would pay extra for "fair trade" but I am very pessimistic about its success. I mean, things like this have been popping up for many years now. There is a brief media brouhaha, people get all riled up and a few "poster-child" companies are singled out for a quick PR thrashing of no lasting consequence, and then everyone goes back to "value shopping".
    oncall
    • The problem with paying extra is...

      @oncall
      Who is pocketing the extra dough? Buying Apple is hardly "value shopping" so one might expect that some of the extra money you pay Apple would get passed down to the people actually making Apple's products (since Apple doesn't actually make anything). Nope. All the workers at an Apple Foxconn plant get is extra police snooping through their belongings.

      Apple is [b]more[/b] responsible because with $50 billion in the bank and a larger market cap than anyone else in the industry, they can actually afford to do something about this problem. That they don't do anything about this should be criminal. Jobs should be behind bars.
      NonZealot
      • Yawn

        @NonZealot

        What was that about that "Apple is a tiny niche product with an insignificant market share" you and others like you keep waving around? You go right ahead and keep your "fake rage" focused on Apple rather than the industry and your own buying habits. That way Apple can toss out a few token PR releases, maybe even throw up a web page describing what they are doing to improve labor practices. The rest of the industry can relax and go back to what they were doing before. You can go back to buying whatever computer parts you were buying before confident that you don't really give a rats rear how they were made as long as they were cheap.

        Besides that Macbook you own do you have any idea what the labor practices are of the other companies you purchase from?
        oncall