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March 29th, 2012

Reports of Harmful Conditions in iPhone Factories Spur Action


As products like the iPad, iPod and iPhone gain popularity, there are more questions about the harsh labor practices at Chinese factories where they are made.

Workers at China’s Foxconn factory protest working conditions there. Foxconn makes many Apple products, including iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Apple’s chief executive Timothy Cook visited an iPhone manufacturing plant in China this week following a series of stories The New York Times about deadly safety violations, excessive overtime hours and underage employees at the facility.  The reports spurred protests at stores in several U.S. cities.

At one protest, activist Mark Shields started a petition on urging Apple to respond to the allegations of abuse.

“Apple has changed how we listen to music, how we see movies, how we use our iPhones, how we use computers. They have the creativity and the capital to make this better. They can make their products without horrible human suffering,” he said.

In addition to this week’s factory visit, Apple announced that an independent watchdog group, the Fair Labor Association, would inspect the plants, which are run by a company called Foxconn.  The Foxconn Technology Park in Zhengzhou, which makes iPhones and iPads, came under scrutiny after it was reported that managers installed nets to stop upset workers from jumping off the roof after a rash of suicides in 2010.

Who makes iPhones, iPods and iPads?

China’s factories are home to over 130 million migrant workers—the largest migration in human history according to Leslie Chang, the author of the book Factory Girls.

More people live in China than in any other country, and the factories draw from a huge labor force of people under the age of 30 who come from rural farming villages to make money and find a better life.  Chinese factory owners have become really good at mobilizing materials and workers to produce whatever international companies want, and many American companies look to large Chinese outsourcing companies such as Foxconn because they’re good and cheap, explains Peter Burrows, senior writer for Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

“It’s really a small city. It has its own soccer stadiums, police force, chicken farms. It goes on and on …. There’s hundreds of thousands of people, young people, beginning of their lives maybe before they get married tend to come into the cities and get work at plants like these,” Burrows said on the NewsHour.

Performer Mike Daisey came under fire for inaccurately reporting some events in his monologue about Apple factory worker conditions in China.

iPhone factory fact versus theater

The working conditions at Apple factories were brought into the spotlight by performer Mike Daisey, whose theater monologue, “The Ecstasy and Agony of Steve Jobs,” was popularized by the public radio program This American Life.

Daisey’s monologue described terrible working conditions he found at Chinese factories making Apple products: workers being poisoned by chemicals and grueling work days with few breaks. However, he recently admitted that some of the details in the show were not true.

Daisey misrepresented the location where a worker poisoning incident took place and inaccurately reported the number of factory visits he made. This American Life considered this bad journalism and retracted the show. Daisey claimed that he is a theater performer, not a journalist, and said he should have never allowed his work to be aired on the radio program.

“I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China,” Daisey said after the controversy.

What are the facts about Chinese factories?

Although the facts behind Daisey’s work were questionable, other organizations and reporters have found concrete evidence of bad working conditions in Chinese technology factories. For example, in January of 2012, the New York Timesreported that workers must stay in overcrowded dormitories, are often underaged, exposed to hazardous waste and must sometimes stand for so long that their legs swell.

In 2011, the NewsHour reported on Chinese factory workers who claim they have been poisoned by the chemicals used to clean iPhone and iPad screens.

“I want to tell all the American consumers the story behind the iPhones,” one factory worker said. “We made iPhones with our health.”

Apple is expected to announce more changes to its manufacturing processes in the coming weeks.

–Compiled by Leah Clapman and Veronica DeVore for NewsHour Extra

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