01.27.12

Investigations Reveal Long Trail of Abuses at Apple Suppliers

Recent reports, including The New York Times’ gripping series, shed new light on the abusive treatment of workers at the tech giant’s Chinese suppliers.

Millions of people who have never been to China carry a piece of Longhua in their pocket. The city in the southern province of Hainan is home to one of several plants run by Foxconn Technology Group, a company that has gotten attention as the manufacturer in whose facilities poorly paid Chinese workers make iPhones and Dell computers, among other hot tech items.

This is hardly the first time reports of abuse have emerged from the closely guarded secret of Apple’s supply line. But in recent weeks, investigations, including a shocking series from The New York Times, have brought the slow-simmering waters of public opinion to a boil as they reveal the lives of the Chinese workers who labor at low cost and high risk to produce the ever-sleeker, ever-slimmer devices for which the world clamors.

1. Long Hours, Low Pay

A year before the debut of the iPhone, a British newspaper drew attention to allegations of abuse of workers at the Foxconn plant, reporting that 200,000 of the manufacturer’s workers clocked 15-hour days and were paid $50 a month to make iPods. The news grabbed attention on Mac blogs, causing the company to say that it would investigate the alleged abuses. “Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible,” Apple said in a statement at the time.

2. A Raid, A Suicide

It was a nightmare come true for Sun Danyong, a product manager in one of Foxconn’s Apple units. A prototype in his care, one of 18 beta N90 iPhones, was missing. As the Nanfang Daily reported, Sun grew increasingly upset, texting his girlfriend and another friend as he tried to find the device. The 25-year-old ran out of time and luck when Foxconn security came knocking at his door, looking for the missing iPhone. The next day, Sun killed himself by jumping out the window of his 12th-floor apartment.

3. Password Protected

An expansive industrial city, complete with sleeping quarters, cafeterias, and even banks and a post office, all locked up behind a security edifice that included metal detectors and fingerprint recognition. That’s what reporters found when they visited the Foxconn plant in Longhua in 2010. Trucks came and went, dumping raw materials and lumbering out laden with haute technology. While working on the article, a Reuters reporter found out firsthand what happens when one draws the unwanted attention of Foxconn security. While taking pictures outside a plant in the nearby city of Guanlan, the reporter was grabbed, kicked, and threatened by guards.

4. In Response to Suicides, Nets and a Pledge

A spate of nine worker suicides in three months, including that of a 19-year-old worker, at the Shenzhen Foxconn plant led to an incredible reaction among management at the manufacturer in May 2010. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, higher-ups asked workers to sign a suicide pledge, a promise not to kill themselves. As if heights were the only means available to workers ready to end their lives to escape the grueling hours and claustrophobic conditions that employees described to reporters, the company organized “roof patrols,” and hung nets from the sides of the building.

5. Apple Responds to Suicides

After the 10th employee plunged to his death, the Foxconn suicides made headlines in May 2010. Apple and other Foxconn customers issued statements, and said they would conduct their own investigations into the incidents. “We are saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn,” Apple said, saying it was in touch with Foxconn management and “we believe that they are taking this matter very seriously.” In a somewhat bizarre bid to show that they had matters in hand, Foxconn management led reporters on a tour of its Longhua location, pointing out that it would drape more nets from the dormitories where it billets its workers.

6. Techies Take Issue

The Foxconn controversy lurched into the collective consciousness of Apple’s iFanatics when a Gizmodo editor took to the pages of Wired early last year to describe what he found on a tour of the Shenzhen plant. “It’s hard not to look at the nets,” he wrote, describing the still-hanging suicide precautions that flapped morbidly around the campus. “They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter.” He was struck most by the sheer size of the Foxconn facility, which he wrote his guides were quick to compare to a “college campus.” Their assurances did little to assuage Joel Johnson’s guilt. After he left, the technophile found himself still asking, “When 17 people take their lives, I ask myself, did I in my desire hurt them? Even just a little?”

7. Apple Finds Children and Chemicals

Apple revealed in a report released last year that it had found 91 children working at various points along its supply line in 2010, nine times more than it found in a similar self-study a year earlier. There were reportedly underage youth working at 10 facilities that manufactured Apple products. The company’s report also acknowledged that 137 workers at an Apple supplier had been poisoned by n-hexane, a chemical that can cause extreme nervous-system damage after overexposure. N-hexane was reportedly used to clean iPhone screens.

Jobs’s conversation killer of a response? “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

8. Four Dead in Explosion

Foxconn’s Chengdu location, said by experts to be one of the sites where iPads are produced, was wracked by an explosion in May of last year, killing four workers and injuring 18. Chengdu city officials were first to comment on the incident, and said that the blast originated with “combustible dust” in a polishing shop. The explosion led to a partial shutdown of the plant, as experts estimated the delay could cut production of iPad2s by 500,000 units in the second quarter.

9. A Real Jobs Zinger

Out-of-work Americans received some startling news via their New York Times iPhone app last Sunday. Played large and loud in front-page pixels was an account of how President Barack Obama had asked the late Steve Jobs what it would take to bring Apple’s manufacturing arms back to the United States. Jobs’s conversation killer of a response? “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” As the Times detailed, Apple has 20,000 workers abroad and 43,000 on American shores—but an additional 700,000 foreign workers are hired by Apple contractors to actually make the company’s blockbuster products.

10. The iPrice Tag

Drawing on years of reports, incidents, and material, The New York Times conducted an investigation published Thursday that pulled back the shroud of secrecy beneath which Apple’s suppliers had long operated. Former Apple executives told reporters that there’s little incentive for the company to endure the time and cost of finding alternate suppliers—and even if they went looking, there aren’t many that could handle orders of the scale Apple demands. “We’re trying really hard to make things better,” a former executive told the Times. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”