Are we willing to sacrifice our morals for our phones?


SACKVILLE (CUP) — In October, an investigation by a Chinese non-governmental organization exposed child labour at a factory on China’s east coast. The factory is owned by Foxconn, the manufacturer behind 40 per cent of all consumer electronics, including many Apple products, the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. The company later admitted to hiring interns as young as 14 to work as part of a vocational school program that employs them for up to six months. Foxconn promised to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

But this isn’t the only major controversy involving the Taiwanese giant. Foxconn is internationally notorious for the treatment of its employees, requiring them to do demanding work for up to 72 hours per week with little pay and under severe discipline. These conditions have led to so many employee suicides that the company was forced to install “suicide-prevention netting” at some of its factories to prevent people jumping out. In cases where the company has been pressured into shortening the intense work week, some employees have had to quit because there was no commensurate increase in wages.

At a Foxconn plant in Mexico in 2010, workers were told that their buses would be late and that they would be required to work overtime without pay. It was later revealed that those buses were directed by Foxconn management to delay their route, a finding that incited a riot at the plant.

What makes Foxconn so appealing to the tech giants in the West is just how cheap production costs are. An iPhone currently generates $452 in profit for Apple if produced in China, whereas, if produced in the United States, that number would drop to just under $300. But shouldn’t Apple be satisfied with such a profit margin anyway? Isn’t the small drop worth the benefits in advancing human rights? Apparently, the answer is no.

Apple isn’t the only one: Nike is known for employing workers, sometimes under the age of 16, in environments with similar or harsher conditions overseas, and faces much criticism to this day for improperly addressing the issues. And then there are the numerous chocolate companies purchasing cocoa from countries like Côte d’Ivoire, where the use of child labour is prevalent and well known.

The reality, however, is that it is highly unlikely that consumers will refrain from purchasing these products over such issues. The “Made in China” concept has found a place in popular culture and has desensitized us all to what exactly that implies. Indeed, I honestly don’t see myself holding off from buying the next new phone or television over this, but that’s not because I don’t care — it’s because consumerism has become a lifestyle for us, such that the next best thing is a need rather than a desire. That’s one downside of advancing consumer technology.

That doesn’t mean this must remain the status quo, though. Governments have the power to push legislation to discourage companies from outsourcing manufacturing labour to locales that don’t satisfy a certain workplace standard. And it should be in their best interests to do so: manufacturing is a huge job- and wealth-generator. In this economically unstable era, it seems that’s just what we need. We have the capacity for tech manufacturing with existing giants like Flextronics, Celestica, Sanmina-SCI and Jabil Circuit, each based out of North America.

If we pride ourselves on our moral fibre, perhaps it’s time we stopped exploiting the hardships of everyone else.