General Question

Bellatrix's avatar

Are you aware of the work conditions in Chinese factories such as Foxconn and does it influence your decision to purchase technological goods such as phones etc.

Asked by Bellatrix (21307points) September 29th, 2011

I have been aware of stories about suicides at the Chinese factory Foxconn but recently heard an interview with comedian and activist American Mike Daisey. It made me question whether I could ethically buy that new laptop or Apple iPad knowing the work conditions of those who produce them.

How does this knowledge affect your purchase decisions? What can and should consumers in the West do to try to change these work practises?

News article including interview with Daisey

News article about work conditions

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8 Answers

lillycoyote's avatar

Honestly, @Bellatrix, I try, I really do, try to keep up with the conditions of workers around the world through sites like ethicalquote and stories like this, people who monitor these things but it’s hard to keep up at it seems that there would come a point where I wouldn’t be able to buy anything at all if I refused to support any of these companies at all. I do what I can to be a smaller part of the problem than I might otherwise be if I didn’t care at all. That’s the best I can do.

Boogabooga1's avatar

I’m with @lillycoyote .
If we were to be completely ethical then we could not buy any electronics goods.

Have you heard of the element tantalum (coltan)?
Cobalt is used in batteries, while coltan (more commonly known as ‘tantalum’) is a key component in electrical capacitators for cellphones and laptops

Congo mines 40% of the world’s cobalt and coltan. By 2008, 5.4 million people had been killed from the Congolese civil war. The conflict and conditions of slavery are due to these precious resources.

YARNLADY's avatar

Yes, I’m aware of it, but it does not influence my buying choices.

YoBob's avatar

Yes, I am aware of working conditions in China and I buy American whenever I can, not only because I support human rights and abhor the use of what amounts to slave labor, but I believe that buying American supports American workers.

Alas, with technological goods there is often little alternative. However, you do have a choice when it comes to textiles. FWIW, Diamond Gusset and Texas both make excellent jeans.

Qingu's avatar

Scattered thoughts on the subject:

I would not want to work at Foxconn.

I would rather work at Foxconn than in a number of American agricultural jobs.

China’s labor laws are improving.

Less people commit suicide per capita at Foxconn than at the average US university.

It’s not just Apple that uses Foxconn; many large computer manufacturers do. And it’s not just Foxconn that has these kind of conditions.

What can Americans do? Support better labor conditions and labor movements and regulations around the world. That’s how American workers got better wages, hours, and conditions at the nadir of the Industrial Revolution. Better wages for foreign workers also means businesses won’t be able to afford shipping US jobs overseas.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It’s not as simple as ‘don’t buy their goods’ anymore, in this world. Yes, I’m aware. Yes, I’m complict in supporting atrocities. Literally everyone in the U.S. is responsible one way or another.

Earthgirl's avatar

I think we are all unsure of what can be done about this issue that works. By boycotting goods produced by offending companies we tend to punish only the known offenders which tend to be the Walmarts and Nikes of the world. Meanwhile so many smaller or low profile companies are just as guilty of abuses and we turn a blind eye to them. It is impossible to keep up with it all in this quickly shifting global economy. All we can do is to educate ourselves about overall trends and what has been effective as far as combatting these abuses.

I find that I was very ignorant as far as how to answer your question and so I sought out further information. The first thing I came across was information concerning Apple’s membership in the EICC. This is the watchdog organization for the electronics industry which is a business organization and not a civil one.
There is an effort being made to improve working conditions and I believe it is a sincere effort on the part of the business community. We put pressure on the business community and they in turn need to put pressure on the manufacturers and supply chain. This holds true for the textile and clothing industries as well. But how can we maintain compliance in an ever shifting landscape?

Right now there is a trend for companies to use more temporary workers. With temporary workers the manufacturer saves on health care costs and other labor costs. However they need to retrain workers constantly so there is some disagreement on whether or not this is a true cost savings for the company. Migrant workers are brought in and often exploited in even worse ways than a stable labor force would be. They are brought from foreign countries and in some cases made to pay for their transportation to the country of employ. The debt they incur needs to be paid off and until it is they are virtual prisoners living what amounts to a life of indentured servitude, unable to return to their home country and families. The businesses using the recruitment companies for migrants need to have a code of conduct for ethical treatment.

The deeper you get into this issue you see how complex it is and the more you want to do something about it that really matters, that will be effective.

I found an excellent overview of the global compliance issue on a link from I need to give it a thorough reading but to sum up what I get from it, compliance is not practically feasible without the right to Free Association, i.e. collective bargaining for the workers.

Here are some highlights of that round table discussion:
Precarious work means precarious lives and social insecurity leading to increasing violence against women.

Apple on migrant labour
In its Supplier Responsibility 2009 Progress Report, Apple writes about migrant labour: “Our most significant discovery involved recruitment practices in which our suppliers had hired workers from one country to work in factories in another country. Of the 83 facilities audited, we found six facilities where these contract workers stated they had paid recruitment fees that exceeded the applicable legal limits—often requiring them or their families to incur a debt. We classified this overcharge as a core violation, our most serious category of violation, since these workers may not feel at liberty to leave employment until the debt is paid. In addition to demanding reimbursement, Apple has updated its Code to require that suppliers take responsibility for the entire recruitment process, including the recruitment practices and fees of labour agencies in the workers’ home countries.”

“We really have to discard the notion that cheap labour brings cheap goods. Anybody can work out what these so-called cheap products actually cost, in terms of social welfare, environmental damage and so forth.” – NGO

makeITfair warns that reducing overtime hours without increasing wage levels is very risky – workers might end up having even more difficulties to provide for their families.

Civil society poses the next obvious question: why do buyers (individually or within the EICC) not make an effort to try and influence host governments in favour of an increase in minimum wage levels (in stead of lobbying for lower wages, as is now often happening)? Some company participants appear to be willing to consider this, although it remains unclear how this should be done.

Companies underline that on the whole, it is better to engage with suppliers on the ground and work with them to improve their routine, than to break off relations altogether. If labour rights are violated, it is important to work in partnership with suppliers to improve the situation. Civil society participants agree, taking a stand against ‘cut and run’ tactics.

Another aspect is how to reward suppliers that are doing well. Should a ‘supplier sustainability award’ be implemented? Would it have a positive effect on labour conditions throughout the industry? One company representative suggests that tenders can present a strong differentiation point, although this may not always result in business as all other criteria have to be met as well. A brand name company asserts that compliance or non-compliance is seen as a business issue: rewards are presented through feedback in the buyer-supplier contact. Participants to this discussion agree that, in order to further labour rights, business penalties and incentives both need to be in place.

“Suppliers tell us that we want cheap products but at the same time demand that they do so many other things. There is a lack of management education in general on the benefits and the costs of social compliance.” – brand name company
According to one company, NGOs play a decisive role in these matters, by pushing these issues ahead.
“We welcome the reports of SOMO and Swedwatch, they make it possible for us to pursue these issues. Maybe that is part of the solution: to keep pushing us!” – company

page 22–23 contain a set of concrete proposals that this round table between business and civil organizations came up with.

As I was reading up to answer your question this interesting story came up on abusive conditions for food industry workers and one organization that is trying to do something about it.

But of course your question is concerned with what we as individuals can do and how it affects my own buying decisions. I would not buy from a company that I knew had not made good faith efforts to establish and enforce decent working conditions at factories they own or contract work to. Unfortunately, I freely admit that I could not be certain of this with every purchase I make. So I think Apple IS making a good faith effort. But they cannot completely control their supply chain. Monitoring compliance remains a huge issue.

I would support establishing global compliance standards.

I would politically support those who make businesses accountable for abuses.

I would support rewarding suppliers as suggested above for meeting or exceeding conditions for workers.

I would also support the idea of a living wage vs. a minimum wage as dicussed in the article.

Bellatrix Will anyone actually read this long of an answer? Maybe not, but I think the whole issue is an important one and a difficult one to give a brief answer to and say anything meaningful.

Earthgirl's avatar

I relaize, of course, that issues fo sustainability and fair trade add further layers to the ethical dilemma.

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