Smartphones built by exploited workers

By Tyler Davis

They play our music. They connect us to our Facebook pages. They receive our emails and send our pictures. Our phones have become an extension of ourselves, but each gadget in our pocket has a long and dark story.

Apple continuously faces scrutiny regarding its largest manufacturer, the Taiwan-based Foxconn, because of a series of factory worker suicides and, more recently, forced “internships.” Samsung is now dealing with a similar controversy after the New York-based China Labor Watch published an investigation Aug. 7 that found the company’s manufacturers were illegally hiring underage workers and scheduling excessive overtime. In the wake of a highly publicized patent lawsuit between the two companies, Apple and Samsung’s biggest problem going forward may be their overseas manufacturers.

“Made in China” labels have long been an unpleasant reminder of the labor injustice we try to block from our minds. Chinese-made products have become a staple of American consumerism. Skyrocketing demand for smartphones has created a thriving industry of labor camps that value efficiency above worker safety and health. Western consumers value innovative technology but ignore the sad truth about the people who make

these products.

China Labor Watch’s investigation of HEG Electronics Co., one of Samsung’s manufacturers, found that the company knowingly violated Chinese labor laws and hired workers less than 16 years old. The company then moved the underage workers to an off-site dormitory in an attempt to conceal its violation. Many of these children earn little more than the equivalent of one U.S. dollar per hour.

Workers at the HEG factory work approximately 11 hours per day and sometimes receive only one day off each month. Samsung is now looking into their manufacturer’s labor practices but only after receiving bad press. Much like Apple, worker abuse wasn’t a concern until it became public.

In 2010, at least 14 workers at Foxconn factories manufacturing Apple products committed suicide by jumping out of windows at their company-provided dormitory, according to Reuters. In response, the company installed what it calls “nets of a loving heart”—nets preventing would-be jumpers from killing themselves. Additionally, employees must now sign legally binding agreements promising they won’t attempt suicide and that their families won’t sue the company because of “unexpected death.” Some workplaces deal with mental health issues through their human resources department; Apple’s manufacturer uses nets and steel mesh.

After these suicides were widely publicized, Apple promised to send a team to investigate these claims. Steve Jobs even visited the factory.

“They’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools,” Jobs said, according to the Daily Mail. “For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

Following its investigation, the company is still using Foxconn as a manufacturer, and Foxconn is still abusing workers.

Because of the anticipated demand for the iPhone 5, instructors at several vocational schools in the Chinese city of Huai’an are telling students that this fall they will be required to work on a Foxconn assembly line, according to Shanghai Daily. Many students said they are expected to work six days a week for up to 12 hours a day during the school year and fear punishment from their school if they decide not to.

Manufacturing isn’t the only step in the creation of a smartphone that causes overseas turmoil. Similar to armed conflicts over diamonds, Congolese militia groups have been known to use violence to gain access to coltan mines, which source a metallic ore used in phones and computers. Many of these mines employ child laborers, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Labor. “Children face heightened risks of disease, sleep in the open, and are subject to fatal accidents from the collapse of mineshafts,” the report said. A 2003 UN report stated that conditions at some of these mines were “akin to slavery.”

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 makes it more difficult for American companies to obtain conflict minerals, but neighboring countries like Rwanda have been using their armies to smuggle the ore, according to the U.N.

In a 2008 TED talk, “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe said, “Innovation without imitation is a complete waste of time.” We all know and love innovators like the late Steve Jobs, but the laborers making the products and mining the resources are treated like human garbage by their bosses and ignored by consumers.

It would be unreasonable for everyone to simply give up their phones, but we cannot keep ignoring labor abuse. Technology giants like Apple and Samsung need to know that we take notice when they abuse workers. These companies provide what their consumers demand, so let’s start demanding fair wages and treatment for the people who make our gadgets.