OPINION: Foxconn is not just an Apple problem, it’s a consumer problem – and there’s no way out

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Image of Foxconn's facilities (Image by ttstam/Flickr, under Creative Commons)

You may have heard in the news that Apple has had a serious problem with building its products with China. Constant news reports from the main technology press, and soon the more mainstream press, have shined a light of the inner workings of its manufacturing partners. But, why are we so focused on Apple? We shouldn’t focus on them at all – we should be focusing on our own mass tech consumption as the reason why we let this continue.

Yes, Apple hires Foxconn to do its work. It has the contract to build out millions of iPhones, iPads and iPods every year. And yes, Foxconn has a history of problems – such as workers committing suicide, child labour and even exposing workers to dangerous chemicals. But Foxconn also has contracts to build the Kindle and the three major gaming consoles – the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360. Its client list also includes Nokia, Intel and Samsung.

So why has Apple copped much of the flack? You can point the finger to Mike Daisey and his piece that featured on This American Life.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to attack him on that piece. It was an eye-opening feature that you should all listen. But what really annoys me is that everyone is focused on Apple – and I can understand it because it has been at the forefront of the scandals. However, this should be an issue for all tech companies in general who manufacture their products in China. Apple shouldn’t be the only ethical company – despite their campaign of “Think Different” – and make an ethical iPhone just to appease worried hipsters of mistreatment. All companies should do the same – be ethical.

Now we reached a conundrum. A more ethical product, where assuming there are safer working standards and conditions, will mean the price will rise to compensate. As we all know, any change will essentially be passed onto the consumer. HP and Dell has even confirmed that it will likely increase the price you’ll pay for your laptop.

Cheap labour is in the interests of Apple, Nokia and many other companies because it means it pays less to manufacture a high-quality gadget. And hence, it can sell it at a pricepoint which will mean consumers will buy the product. The trend in consumer electronics is to make it smaller, thinner and cheaper – and if you can’t do the last one, then it won’t sell as well as its cheaper competitor.

And for HP and Dell, they can’t afford to have increased production costs. While it may be ethical (and is the right thing to do), the PC market only offers small returns. And it is because of the trend – cheaper computers. Five years ago, laptops would have been at least $1,600. Now, most laptops are below the $1000 range. And its because of the number of competitors that are eating each other out with lower and lower prices, and in thinner form factors just to stand out from the crowded market.

Then what about pulling out of China altogether and find another place? Well, you’ve single-handily damaged the Chinese economy. Foxconn, with 13 factories, is the largest private employer in the country. That would mean massive jobs cut because you cannot retain the same amount of people if major international clients pulled out. Plus, another problem emerges: where to next? We can’t put it in the West because the price will increase heavily. And if we move to a developing or third-world country, we will have the same problem or even worse as companies with big profits would have a chance to influence policy.

We can all hope for better working conditions, but realistically – we’ll still have cheap labour, we will still have the poor working conditions and abuses. And we will all ignore it, because we want the goods at a price we deem is right for it. Effectively, that means the prices will remain low and ‘cheap’.

So, if we really, really want change; we all have to change our spending habits. Are you willing to pay more for something ethical?

Postscript (17 March 2012): The Mike Daisey’s piece has been retracted by This American Life after it has been exposed to have been fabricated some of its allegations. Apple, however, has had some problems with its suppliers – including unsafe working conditions. This opinion piece still stands, as it is focused on the problems with manufacturing technology problems in China for all across the spectrum.

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