Editorial: Thoughts on Foxconn

Laura June has been an Editor at Engadget since October of 2008. The views expressed in this editorial are her own, cobbled together by hand, with love, in the United States of America, for a fair wage.

I'm not an economist, and in fact, I've never been very good with money or math. I'm not a manufacturer either -- the only things I make with my own hands are quilts and cakes. I know, however, from these experiences, that the best products take time, and are made with care from the best available materials.

It's obvious, by now -- or it should be -- that something's going on at Foxconn (headquarter in Tucheng, Taiwan), the owners of massive factories in China which most famously assembles Apple products (though it's also responsible for many, many others). There have been several suicide attempts this year -- at least eight (up from two last year) of them successful (though it's been pointed out that the number is pretty much on par with the rest of China) -- and over the past few days we've seen what can only be called a shocking expose by a worker who went undercover there. It's clear, from this report and others (such as last month's National Labor Committee report on the KYE factory in Dongguan City) that most of the people who assemble our gadgets do so under conditions we, in America would never tolerate, and for a wage that is paltry, to say the least. I'm hesitant to pass judgment en masse on how an entire country or a specific factory does business, and I don't have the knowledge or expertise to do so. So I'm not going to.

As I sit here, typing on my MacBook Pro, my iPad sits charging in the bedroom. It's obvious to me that these products have been designed by the best minds working in gadgetry today -- they are beautiful, simple, and reliable. Best of all -- they really work. Now, I don't know how they were made -- but I know that they were assembled in China, most likely at Foxconn. And today, that knowledge doesn't sit very well with me.

It's a complicated issue which brings up complicated feelings. I come from extremely humble beginnings -- immigrants who worked in factories and coal mines for long hours and little money, child laborers and people who died of lung cancer at 50 despite never having smoked. And of course, this is the life they dreamed of. In many ways it was better than dying of starvation in Ireland or Poland. Most Americans have the same stories to tell, and look where we are today: I don't know a single farm hand or factory worker. As the United States became more successful its factories got better, and workers formed unions. In Pittsburgh, where I was born, steel mills and glass factories came to pay great wages, amazing overtime, and had great benefits and pension plans which my grandparents benefit from to this day. The demise of the American factory is yet another complicated issue I am not qualified to tackle.

Apple (and companies like it) now assembles its products in China for complicated reasons -- because that's where the factories are, because it's cheaper, because everybody does it -- but mostly, because it can. Despite ever increasingly obvious signs that our gadgets are made in less than stellar conditions, the American addiction to the new and shiny must be fed. I say this with the guilt of an addict, and admit that I am no better -- after all, I can't think of a single gadget off the top of my head that I could buy that would be 100% American made, which, as an American, is the only way I could have first hand knowledge and security of a product's origins and a factory's working conditions.

I'm not proposing we start up a Facebook group to boycott Apple or Microsoft or any other company. Going on a Twitter rampage about human rights won't cut it in this case either, and whatever media attention these stories get -- while educational -- won't necessarily change anything. I'm not naive. What I am asking is for something different -- something that sound bites on the internet won't have any effect on.

We, the people who buy and love gadgets, who write about them, who obsess over their design and minutiae, must think about what this means. We should go into our purchases knowingly -- the way most of us think with more knowledge than our ancestors about what we put in our mouths and how we clothe ourselves. Would I prefer that Apple assembled my iPhone in the US of A? Yes: there's greater oversight and better working conditions here (and there are many places in the world less opaque than China). Would that mean I would have to pay more? Yes, exponentially. Companies like Apple know that their images matter. It's why they're scrambling to "green themselves up" and prove their products don't end up contributing to the toxic garbage dump that we call Earth. We shouldn't accept companies' meaningless "we're looking into it" press releases when issues like this come up, because at the end of the day, we must come to terms with the fact that they don't actually care about the workers at Foxconn, not really -- as long as the factories keep churning out the goods.

There is, of course, the argument that our companies manufacturing in places like China is a largely good thing for China (never mind the fact that it fulfills our need for cheap products), and its people (think once again of my forebearers starving in Ireland before deciding to head down into the mines of Pennsylvania). One look at the country's economy will tell you that somebody is sure benefiting -- and I'm not going to argue that this train of thought is incorrect. Yes, even a terrible job is better than no job at all, and Foxconn's wages are arguably better than many in China -- but we can't really get around the fact that the reasons our companies choose to manufacture goods outside of places like the United States are stark, sad, and undeniable: because it's cheaper, and because the labor standards are much lower. We shouldn't avoid knowing that, merely because there are other arguments that can make us feel better about it, and I'm not sure the thought that we're benefiting directly from a country's growing pains should be reassuring.

We're not going to stop buying gadgets. But knowing where they come from, and seeing that with open eyes makes all the difference. At a time where most people on the internet give more attention to oil spills, where their food is coming from, how animals are treated, what the earth will look like in 50 years, nuclear weapons -- the list is endless -- we can't really afford to have blinders on about our where our laptops and cellphones come from, who made them, and what they leave behind when we've thrown them in the garbage -- no matter how beautiful their industrial design is.