Geek Guide: The human cost of technology

Did you know that Chinese workers had to slog for days to make your iPhone?

Noman Ansari February 11, 2012

What do tech giants like Apple, Samsung, Nokia, Motorola, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony,  fierce competitors in the marketplace — all have in common? They all have their products manufactured by Taiwanese company, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd — an electronics manufacturing company, better known by its trading name Foxconn. And at the moment all these tech stalwarts risk having their image seriously tarnished, thanks to some tragic events which have taken place over the past few years at Foxconn’s factories in China.

Products such as the iPhone, iPad, Xbox 360, Kindle, and PlayStation 3, are manufactured by Foxconn at their plants in China, where an estimated 26 employees have attempted suicide since 2007, including eighteen in 2010, resulting in 14 deaths. Foxconn, of course, manufactures over 50% of the world’s electronics, and is Apple’s primary manufacturer.

While some troubled employees committed suicide by hanging themselves, the majority killed themselves by jumping from the top of Foxconn factory buildings. The most high profile of these suicides was that of Sun Dan-yong, an employee who leapt to his death from his apartment building, after the company’s employees beat him up and searched his residence for losing an iPhone prototype.

Foxconn’s response to the situation was to install huge nets between its factories, designed to catch those who decide to take the deadly leap from the top of the buildings. The Asian manufacturing company has also increased wages, made employees sign no-suicide pledges and agreements which prevent an employee’s relatives to sue the company after he or she commits suicide. Interestingly so, the company also invited monks to its factories, in order to exorcise what it believed to be evil spirits haunting the company.

An investigative report published in 2010 by 20 Chinese universities chastised Foxconn’s management for being ‘inhumane and abusive’, and conducting illegal overtime practices. Meanwhile, Hong Kong based non-profit organization, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), also published a damning report against the company, titled Workers as Machines: Military Management in Foxconn, which condemned the poor working conditions and the exceptionally low wages. The report also stated that through contractual obligations, Foxconn workers were forced to do a fatiguing overtime of 140 hours a month.

But while Foxconn correctly argues that its Chinese factory suicide rate is lower than the national average, it is experiencing tremendous pressure because of its very high profile clients. Recently, American news groups like CNN and The New York Times, have focused on the plight of the Foxconn factory workers. Stories of Chinese employees living inhumanely in cramped dorms, working till they are unable to walk and getting injured after being forced to use poisonous chemicals to clean iPhone screens, have all immensely shocked tech enthusiasts.

Rightly so, fans have started to group together to put pressure on companies like Apple, in order to amend the situation at Foxconn. Recently, over 250,000 petitions were collected by watchdog groups like and Yet, the fans have shown indifference in general, and change has been slow, claims an 18-year-old Foxconn factory worker. “Everyday is like: I get off from work and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It is my daily routine and I almost feel like an animal,” he told CNN.

Experts suggest that Foxconn’s answer to the problem could be a shift from human labour into robot manufacturing. While Foxconn currently uses 10,000 robots — which do the same work as 120 factory workers — it plans to greatly increase its number of robot workers in 2012 to 300,000. And according to Foxconn Chairperson, Terry Gou, as quoted in The China Business News, Foxconn plans a drastic increase in robot workers to 1 million within the next three years. And with all these jobs looking to be whisked away, what the future holds for Foxconn’s human labour force remains to be seen.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2012.


Frank L Tobe | 9 years ago | Reply

Sensationalism is so prevalent that it often goes unnoticed.

Foxconn’s response to the situation was to install huge nets between its factories, designed to catch those who decide to take the deadly leap from the top of the buildings.

True, but not all of the story. Foxconn launched a whole suicide awareness and counseling program AND put up nets too.

For a more balanced view, read the three stories I have written about why and how Foxconn is planning to use robots to help the situation. and search for Foxconn.

Ris | 9 years ago | Reply

Lemmings? :)

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