Coping with iGuilt: Apple Admits Chinese Factory Workers Poisoned

Coping with iGuilt: Apple Admits Chinese Factory Workers PoisonedApple has recently admitted the truth behind the claims being made about Chinese factory workers being exposed to poisonous chemicals while working on the production of the company’s suite of electronics, including the iPad, iPod, and iPhone. Concerns about the poisonous contents, of some of the elements, involved in the construction of these personal technology tools have been voiced for years by advocacy groups, including China Labor Watch. The chief cause of illness has been exposure to a chemical called n-hexane, which was used instead of ethanol because it evaporates quickly, an asset to speedy touchscreen production.

Apple says that their recent concession of the validity of these claims has proved the efficacy of their internal auditing process, which confirmed that 137 Chinese workers were poisoned by chemicals involved in the production process. Other health and safety violations found by the audit included an increase in child labor and excessive overtime. Less than a third of the factories investigated during the audit were in compliance with Apple’s supplier code of conduct.

One surprising response to the situation has come from the workers themselves, five of whom signed their names to a letter addressed to the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs. The letter asks for Jobs to take personal action in getting the Taiwanese factory owner to compensate workers who have been poisoned. The letter states that Wintek, the company that owns the factory, pressured some who took compensation to leave their jobs and that medical bills have not been paid.

Some of the workers are still experiencing ongoing health problems, including limb numbness, pain, and malaise. Jobs has not responded to the letter from the workers so far. The annual report for 2010, which was published last week, acknowledged the incident and outlined the internal review process that had been taken. The report states that Apple required Wintek to cease use of n-hexane in the production process. All of this ahead of the official announcement about iPad 2, which is largely agreed to be in production, hopefully under more ethical circumstances.

While many have welcomed Apple admission of the issues with its production process, there is a continued feeling of concern that the problem is more extensive than Apple has admitted. Anita Chan, of the China Research Center at Sydney’s University of Technology, spoke about how the Chinese government’s lack of regulation over working conditions contributes to the lack of protection of industrial workers, “The state is not very responsible in a certain way. They [Apple] said that they discovered one particular factory that hires more of these underage workers than elsewhere, So Apple is on top of this problem and trying to resolve it. OK, that’s fine, but there are more serious [issues] that Apple does not mention in this report.” She also said that the speed of the production process contributes to the workers’ risk of harm. In September of 2010, iPad production rates were pushed to 2 million units per month ahead of anticipated winter holiday sales.

What does this mean for you and the device you might be reading this story on right now? And can we fairly put the bulk of the blame on Chinese factories when they are running at a pace set by Western consumers’ demands? The problems discovered in this handful of factories in China are hardly exceptions to the norm. We need to admit to ourselves that we know these problems are extensive and that the increasingly-affordable prices of our readily available smartphones are not because the tech companies feel like having smaller profit margins.

I read an essay over Thanksgiving written by Ashley Judd, about the moral and ethical conundrum of using electronics, particularly Apple, when one knows about the legacy of exploitation that is part of their production. Her focus was on the unethical mining of conflict mineral tungsten and tantalum in African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the DRC, almost all of the mines are militarized, meaning their profits, as Judd points out, contribute to the funding of mass rape, torture, and displacement.

Judd’s essay stayed with me the past few months because it was rife with self consciousness, yet attempted to justify using tools of convenience and productivity. She was quick to point out that she didn’t buy her iPod and that it’s old, that she only downloaded movies onto her iPad to help her cope with the trauma of traveling to the DRC, and that, in case anyone was wondering, she feels really guilty about it all. I can understand that sense of guilt. I am, after all, writing this on a Macbook Pro. I think guilt is only useful if it can be translated into an action that helps other people. Guilt is, after all, a very self-centered emotion.

There is no technology company that has come forward with the “organic” version of the laptop. If that had happened, I would know, because I live in Brooklyn, and I would see a bunch of them on the L train. When there is no clean solution, what are we to do? Judd advocates for hoping and dreaming of a better day, “I dream of the day when North Americans recoil in horror at the introduction of an otherwise revolutionary and exciting electronic product that lacks TAC….when the queues are expressions of solidarity for 11-year-old mine slaves, women whose vaginas have been perforated by object insertion rape, and families forced to eat one another in each other’s presence.”

If that quote makes you cringe, I don’t blame you. Judd evokes even cruder imagery while describing the clean aesthetics of Apple products and juxtaposing them with the violence of sexual assault. It may be heavy-handed, but it was memorable. The takeaway message of all of this is that this is problem extends far beyond 137 factory workers in China, but that we can’t forget them and their struggle while we are pushing for Apple to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Apple didn’t invent exploitation of Chinese and African workers, but they could easily be the leaders in a new generation of labor and conflict-free material standards. If not them, who? And if we’re not going to create a consumer demand for these higher standards, who will?

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You can follow Jacki on Twitter @TheVelvetDays or read her blog on Tumblr, which she is actually starting to update.

Jacklyn Lacey is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where her academic focus was medical anthropology.  She lived in East Africa between 2005 and 2006, where she developed a strong interest in the ...read more

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