The real human cost of our mobile devices

One of the more positive developments to hit the mobile industry of late is the immense media exposure being placed on the working conditions of those who build the devices that delight us and infuriate us. Media interest in this topic has been gaining for years, but it seems to have hit a new crescendo in the last couple months.

Device makers of every kind operate with virtual impunity. And yet we hear stories of mass suicides, debilitating ailments and poisoning — all a direct result of building the products we can’t get enough of. Not only has it become more difficult for journalists and consumers to ignore this reality, but also Apple and hopefully many companies to come. We all know that buying products built in China and other countries that treat millions of workers like modern-day slaves comes at a price that lingers well beyond the cash register. We vote with our pocketbooks, the saying goes, and this is what our money supports.

Bill Weir (@BillWeirABC) of ABC News recently got a rare look inside the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where all things Apple (and many others) are made. Foxconn is the world’s largest maker of electronic components and the largest private employer in China. The manufacturer’s major customers read like a who’s who of technology, including Acer, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola Mobility, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung Electronics, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio.

Weir’s report (and much of the news coverage directed at Foxconn) focuses on Apple products. While Apple isn’t the only company deserving of blame in the abhorrent working conditions at Foxconn, it’s not entirely unfair or unreasonable for Apple to be on the receiving end of most of the negative attention. Apple dominates the mobile device industry today — not only in mind share and publicity, but profits and tremendous growth. It is, after all, the most valuable publicly held company in the world. If Apple can be pushed to change, so can the others.

Foxconn employees regularly work 12-hour shifts at a starting salary of $1.78 an hour, according to Weir’s report. Unless these entry-level employees work 47 hours of overtime per month, the Chinese government considers them too poor to pay any taxes. These workers pay $17.50 per month to sleep in a cramped dorm with seven strangers. They work in utter silence all day, leaving machines to do most of the talking, barking commands to workers on the line a few thousand times per shift.

There are 141 steps involved in making an iPhone. An iPad requires five days and 325 sets of hands before completion. Foxconn employees will turn a raw hunk of aluminum into complete iPads at the rate of 10,000 per hour. Weir talked to one female employee who carves the Apple logos into aluminum backs for iPads. When Weir asked her what she thinks about all day, she said, “A lot of the time I think about how tired I am.”

Weir summed up his report in a touching and relatable fashion. “One trip to Foxconn seems to prove that with the world as it is, we can either be the country that lines up to make iPhones or we can be the country that lines up to buy them, but it’s impossible to be both,” he concluded.