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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.

A Chinese activist from China Labor Watch, Li Quang, states: "I just want the customers to know that Apple operates heartless factories." And Ralph Nader explains, "Apple is in the best position of any company in the world, because of its massive profits, to clean up its supply chain."

Has Apple's production and supply chain gotten too big for the company to oversee? How easy is it for companies like Foxconn and Pegatron to give lip service to Apple's demands without Apple knowing what's really going on? For it's unlikely that Apple's own employees investigating any claims would see the same things as what these reporters filmed.

But is it fair to blame Apple for all of these problems? These conditions are certainly the same for employees working in factories making products for Samsung, HTC, Sony, and others. Apple is an easy target, being the biggest company in the computer sector, but what about all the others? The BBC explains how many other companies use this kind of factory, but, as is often the case, merely picked Apple since it's the biggest target.

And that's the real issue that needs addressing. It's not Apple's factories per se (which Apple doesn't own, of course--these are companies contracting for Apple), but China as a whole that has harsh conditions for workers. I would have liked to have seen the insides of a factory that makes phones for other companies, one that assembles cheap toys, and one that builds all the other gadgets and goods that we import from the country. There may be 1 million workers assembling Apple products, but that is less than 1 percent of the total workforce in the country's factories. Conditions in toy factories don't seem any better, and may, in fact, be much worse.

Beyond China

The BBC report didn't just look at Chinese factories, but also travelled to Indonesia to see how tin, an important component used to solder computers and mobile devices, is mined by dredging the sand for ore in shallow seas, damaging coral reefs. On land, illegal miners burn forests, strip the land, and dig tin ore, even using children.

A major tin smelter explained that he buys some tin from middlemen, who buy tin from smaller miners, so it's likely that some of the tin ore is mined illegally. And that some of that illegally mined tin ends up in the solder used for Apple products. When asked what he thought of Apple's promises, he said, "Bullshit Apple. Apple bullshit."

To be fair, it's a bit surprising to see how labor-intensive the production of these devices is. I'd have expected more robots in factories. While it's not clear from these films what tasks the employees are performing, and how these tasks relate to the overall manufacturing chain (it looks like they are testing the devices), I'd like to know if the entire manufacturing process for an iPhone is carried out in these conditions.


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