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Should You Feel Guilty Owning an iPhone?

The box that protects Apple’s latest creation tells us why we just sacrificed a few hundred dollars for a gadget. The precision of the fit and finish of the card board box. The flawless protective plastics that keep your iPhone and iPod safe. The glorious moment and pride you feel when you turn it on the first time. But what are we exactly proud of? Shouldn’t we feel at least some sort of guilt?

Never in the history of earth have we been able to bridge or even eliminate geographic distances as we can today. Occasionally, and thanks to the Internet, you often forget the dimensions of our planet and you could almost believe there is a way that leads to one global community, with a few unpleasant exceptions.

That is, of course, only true in the case of those things we like to see and have an interest in. In others, we look the other direction, we show little interest for the needs of others and we pretend we have no clue what you are talking about. You can find examples of such scenarios in all walks of life, but for this column, I would like to direct your attention to the dark side of gadgets, the way they are manufactured. And no, of course, it isn’t just Apple and its manufacturer. 

Countless big U.S. and non U.S. corporations are guilty of exploiting human workforce and looking the other way when it’s convenient. Chinese sweatshops have been making headlines for years and a recent article published on Gizmodo truly highlighted the ghastly working conditions at Foxconn, Apple’s contract manufacturer. When there are suicide attempts at a manufacturing facility, due to stress and working conditions, you know you are much closer to a modern form of slavery than an employer who makes sure its employees are taken care of. 

The National Labor Committee regularly publishes reports on working conditions globally and you will find big names such as Microsoft, Nike, Wal-Mart, Disney, Timberland, Huffy, JanSport, the Kathie Lee (Gifford) label, and Dell, all of which have been accused of unfair labor practices involving contract manufacturers.

So take Apple just as an example.

When you look at the iPhone, you most likely see the design talent of industrial designers, you see the ideas that went into the device, you may think about the patents that enabled and protect this device, you may see the vision of Steve Jobs glorified in this one small handheld. But we really don’t see how this device was made. It was made in a factory that employees 20-something year olds, some of who get paid only $130 a month at less than the Chinese minimum wage of about 55 cents. Some are working 98 hours per week, are under permanent surveillance, by cameras and co-workers, are not allowed to talk during work hours. 

Microsoft recently came under fire for having its mice manufactured in sweatshops by 15 and 16 year old teenagers who work 15 hour days, 6 days a week for 52 cents per hour. They have to assemble 2000 Microsoft mice per shift. 

In factories near Hong Kong, workers in such factories reportedly lose 40,000 fingers on the job every year, due to unsafe manufacturing equipment, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Consumer groups claim that companies consistently try to cheat their employees out of earned wages, do not provide health benefits and expose their workers to toxic materials like lead, cadmium and mercury. Here in the U.S. we are worried about baby bottles that may carry a potentially unsafe material and lead in toys. But we don’t care about those who assembled those products.
Of course, Wal-Mart is the posterchild of suspected child labor violations.

The company is believed to import more than $10 billion of goods from China every year and you would have no trouble finding questionable working conditions. Take the Guangzhou Huanya Gift, for example, which describes itself as being "among the top three Christmas ornament producers in mainland China." 8000 workers in the factory have to deal with grueling working conditions that reportedly violate every single Chinese labor law: 10-15 hour shifts, seven days per week, 30 days in a row without a day off. Workers are required to work at least 84.5 hours per week, while only being paid for 77 hours. According to the National Labor Committee, at least half of the employee base “are routinely at the factory 105.25 hours a week and working 95 hours, including 55 hours of overtime, which exceeds China's legal limit by 562%.  Any working daring to take a Sunday off will be docked 2.5 days' wages as punishment.”  

Apple has been consistently in the crosshairs of human rights groups for having its products manufactured by Foxconn, which employs about 400,000 people and assembles products for other companies such as HP, Dell and Intel as well. What makes Foxconn a standout is not just the fact that it manufactures Mac minis or iPods and iPads, but the fact that there have been more than three dozen suicide attempts with seven confirmed deaths in recent months. Foxconn apparently has hired Buddhist monks as counselors to help. Perhaps they should think about changing their work conditions? 

Of course, it is always difficult to judge a situation in a different culture, but there is clearly something wrong with the picture of workers clearly suffering on the one side of the globe and a buy-and-throw-away society on the other. Add to this scenario not just a somewhat ignorant pride when unboxing a new gadget, but those individuals who purchase those gadgets and subsequently think it is funny to walk out the store and keep smashing it on the sidewalk to find out how much it takes to destroy the device.

So, are we guilty of supporting an economy that can get away with operating a gigantic slavery machine? Of course we are, as consumers we keep fueling this machine. However, as so often, you can easily claim there is nothing you can do as an individual and calling for a boycott of buying Apple, Microsoft, Dell or Wal-Mart products is clearly not the solution. However, corporate responsibility should be a global effort. Yes, I do understand that manufacturing cost is a big deal and of course you give the contract to the company that does it for the lowest cost. And there is a whole chain of factors that favors low cost (and is willing to accept such work conditions), ranging from the companies themselves, the supply chain, unforgiving investors and consumers. But there needs to be a limit.

There needs to be a motivation for Microsoft, Apple, Wal-Mart and others to skip manufacturers that earn their money with outrageous working conditions, which, in part creates profits for the Apples and Microsofts as well. Ads a global society, we need to learn to honor the ethics that go into manufacturing and put a value on them. How proud can you be of a product that was built in a work environment I described above?

At least as far as I am concerned, I would like to know that the “incredible price” of the iPad was achieved through Apple’s innovation and not on the shoulders of severely underpaid workers and an hazardous work environment in a factory on the other side of the world. That whole thought puts Apple’s impressive profit margins into an entirely differently light as well. 

Perhaps we all should be a bit more conscious and less selfish about our global society.  

Wolfgang Gruener is a technology journalist and analyst. He was managing editor for the Tom’s Hardware news section from 2003 to 2005, before launching and acquiring TG Daily. Today, Wolfgang works with startups and publishes his thoughts and analysis on critical and emerging technologies and products at