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BBC documentary highlights conditions at a Chinese iPhone factory, but is it all Apple's fault?

Kirk McElhearn | Dec. 22, 2014
There's clearly a problem, but no one company deserves all the blame.

apple factory

I've worked at a lot of different jobs in my life, but there are a few I'd never like to try: picking crops on a farm, working in a chicken processing plant, and working in any kind of factory. The relentless assembly lines and the noise of the machines would be hard to deal with. Even those factories without deafening machines still seem like harsh places to work, if only because of the cadence they impose on employees.

Whatever device you're reading this article on was built in a factory, most likely in China. In this country, not known for its pleasant working conditions, all the major computer manufacturers have their devices built and assembled. Including Apple.

Apple has been publishing Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports on its website since 2007, detailing the efforts the company has made to improve the conditions of workers. (You can read this year's report right here.)

But has it made a difference? This is what journalist Richard Bilton set out to find. The BBC ran a documentary last night on its Panorama program (roughly the British equivalent of 60 Minutes, except each show is a full hour about a single topic). He wanted to know whether the conditions in Apple's plants had improved since the company promised, following a series of suicides at a Foxconn plant in 2010, to improve them.

The film starts by claiming to tell "the truth about Apple and your iPhone," and begins by looking at the "fanatics to the cult of Apple" on the day of the iPhone 6 launch. (To be fair, the journalist is an Apple user, and points out, at the beginning of the documentary, that he uses an iPhone and a "MacBook.") Then it looks at why Apple uses China to manufacture most of their hardware: With 1 million workers making Apple products, no other country can provide so much labor so cheaply.

The BBC journalist went to Shanghai, to a Pegatron factory; a grim mini-city where 80,000 workers live in overcrowded dormitories around the plant. Pegatron got contracts to work for Apple following the 2010 incidents, but conditions at its factories seem no better. Three Chinese journalists went into the factory with hidden cameras, showing the process from hiring to training to actual work days.

From the hidden-camera footage, it looks a lot like that 1984 that Apple showed, three decades ago, in its famous TV commercial. It's a stark difference from the glossy videos that Apple shows demonstrating robots that meticulously craft the company's products.

Workers are treated poorly from the beginning, yelled at, forced to march in line, and their ID cards are taken from them, ensuring that they can't go anywhere. (It's illegal to not have your ID card with you at all times in China.) When they start working, the days are long: 12-hour shifts, often with mandatory overtime. Plenty of workers fall asleep during their breaks, and even while manning machines. And when they get back to the dormitories after these long days, they're too tired to even worry about being cramped in sleeping rooms that look like jail cells.


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