“iPhone demand helps Apple achieve record profit” read one headline about the $13.1 billion the company made in the last quarter. The iPhone 4s went on sale in the weeks following co-founder Steve Jobs’s death; Apple has now sold a record 37 million iPhones, up from the previous record, 20.34 million.
But Apple is able to churn out so many shiny products, and at a price that consumers are happy to pay, thanks to 700,000 people in Asia, Europe and elsewhere. None of these people are Apple employees: As the New York Times recently reported, Apple itself employs far fewer people, 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas. While Jobs boasted in the 1980s that the Macintosh was “a machine that is made in America,” and iMacs were made in an Elk Grove, California factory in 2002, Apple has now turned — like other tech companies — to foreign manufacturing under the guidance of Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s operations expert who became chief executive last August, six weeks before Jobs died.
Foreign manufacturers, and especially those in China, have a skilled workforce that works round the clock, lives in dormitories (sometimes 20 people in one apartment) far from their families and works 12-hour shifts six days a week in perilous conditions and without the workers’ protections people in the US would demand and rightfully. Foxconn Technology, which is one of China’s biggest employers and has 1.2 million workers, can call up 3,000 people in the middle of the night to churn out iPhones, iPads and iPods. If someone in Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, makes a last-minute change to an iPhone design, Foxconn can have its workers make that change and produce over 10,000 iPhones in 96 hours.
Foxconn’s workers also assemble an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics; its customers include Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung. The company has come under scrutiny, and Apple too, in the wake of worker deaths and injuries at an iPad plant an Chengdu in May of 2011. The New York Times has a lengthy report about the conditions in the factories and workers’ housing, including an interview with Li Mingqi, who used to manage the factory where the explosion occurred and was fired after seven years with Foxconn when he objected to being relocated.
Lai Xiaodong, an employee who died, suffered burns over 90 percent of his body. He was in charge of a team that oversaw the machines that polish iPad cases. In the weeks after the iPad went on sale, workers were told they had to polish thousands of iPads a day and the plant was filled with aluminum dust. Three others were killed and 18 injured. Seven months later, another explosion due to aluminum dust occurred at a Shanghai plant that also made iPads. 59 workers were injured, 23 of whom had to be hospitalized.
Apple recently released a list of 156 of its suppliers and has agreed to allow outside monitors to inspect its partners’ factories and become the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA). But there is no such oversight of those who, further down the techno-industrial food chain, supply the suppliers.
The shiny products we so covet are made at huge human costs in far-away places so we don’t have to think about it. As Jobs said to President Barack Obama last February, there’s no way that iPhones would or could be made in the US. In the 1950s and 1980s, American companies like General Motors and General Electric created thousands of jobs for American workers and enabled them to enter the middle class. But now Apple and other tech companies see themselves competing in a global market and have abandoned US workers. “Customers want amazing new electronics delivered every year,” the New York Times observes and, based on those 37 million iPhones that Apple just sold, that observation is all too correct.
But customers need to be reminded that it’s very possible that someone breathed in aluminum dust, got hurt, even died, to bring them that immaculate, “amazing new,” tech device. Scrape a key across your iPhone screen and it will be smooth as ever, but dig just a little deeper into Apple’s business practices and you’ll see something far less pristine.
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