The human cost of being connected…

The Foxconn website homepage

Does the name Foxconn ring any bells?

It’s the name of a company based in China that assembles iPads, iPhones and other electronic equipment. In fact, it’s the world’s largest manufacturer of computer components, producing items for Apple, Sony and Nokia and is the largest private employer in mainland China.

The owner is a man called Terry Gou, who started producing plastic parts for TV sets in a factory in Taiwan in 1974. At that time, the company employed ten workers. Mr Gou now employs nearly a million people and he’s in the top 150 world rich list, with a personal wealth of US$5.5 billion.

The Macbook Pro I’m working on may have come from a Foxconn factory. At least part of my iPhone6 and my iPad, were assembled by Foxconn in China.

About half of Foxconn’s Chinese workforce are based at its main facility in Shenzhen, a vast factory that is more than a square mile in size (2.59 square kilometres).

The Shenzhen factory came to international attention in 2010. Here’s an extract from an article from the French news agency AFP explaining why:

At least thirteen Foxconn employees died in apparent suicides last year (2010), which labour rights activists blamed on tough working conditions in a case that highlighted the challenges faced by millions of Chinese factory workers.

The group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) … said many Foxconn employees worked 80 to 100 hours of OVERTIME a month on top of their regular 174 hours. The report said the amount of overtime was more than three times China’s legal limit.

“Most of the workers want more overtime work because the basic salary is not enough for survival,” said SACOM, which said the workers earn about $200 a month, including overtime.

Foxconn’s reaction to the suicides? They put safety nets between the different factory buildings.

The nets between the buildings at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen

In an article on in February 2011, Joel Johnson described a visit to the Shenzhen factory.

It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out twenty feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter.

The nets went up in May, after the eleventh jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.

However, the report adds a rather gruesome note:

When one jumper left a note explaining that he committed suicide to provide for his family, the program of remuneration for the families of suicide victims was canceled.

While you’re mulling over the implications of all that, here’s another question: do you know what coltan is? Until last week, I’d never heard of it, now I wish I didn’t know…

Coltan is the industrial name for columbite-tantalite, a black metallic mineral from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. Tantalum is used to manufacture electronic capacitors, used in consumer electronics products such as –you’ve guessed it – computers and cell phones (also DVD players and video games systems).

Coltan is only found in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and in a small region of Tanzania. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Child workers at a coltan mine

According to the website, an estimated two million Congolese children are forced to work in underground mines, digging coltan by hand. It’s also possible that the export of coltan from DR Congo to European and American markets is helping to finance the civil war there.

I know, I know, there are scary stories about everything we consume, whether it’s food, electronics or clothing. But sometimes a story, two stories in this case, make you want to pause and reflect on stuff you buy.

You’re all reading this on computers, so we’re all part of the problem. Any suggestions how we can live a more guilt-free life and still be connected?

Many thanks to Sara Hannam for reminding me of the Foxconn story, and to Sue Lyon-Jones for bringing the coltan story to my attention.


37 thoughts on “The human cost of being connected…

  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this story, depressing though it is but one that certainly needs telling. I have to admit that I was completely ignorant to both the horrors of working at Foxconn and the disgusting and sad use of child labour in DR Congo to mine coltan.

    I’m pretty sure there’s no easy easy answer to your question. Of course we COULD research all the products we buy and the ethical policies of the companies who make them and boycott those which fall short, but in reality this isn’t really feasible for most people. Especially, when every major multinational is so aware how important their public perception is and tries to hoodwink consumers into thinking that they are one of the good guys. (The screenshot of the Foxconn website with a link to ‘Social and Environmental Responsibility’ seems to be one such good example).

    But letting major corporations such as Apple, Sony and Nokia know that we are not indifferent to such practices is surely a start. It might not sound like a lot but similar campaigns against companies such as Nike and Gap in the past have been successful in bringing these issues to light and holding such companies to account.

    Blog posts like this one definitely help though. Thanks once again for raising the issue.

    1. Good thoughts here, Peter.

      Apparently when the Foxconn story first surfaced last year, the glare of publicity led to some changes – but mainly an increase of a few cents an hour in the remuneration received by the workers. The fact is some of them still work more than 200 hours a week. Most of the workers live onsite in crowded dormitories, and the overtime is more or less compulsory.

      What would the effect be of giving these people a living wage (by Chinese standards) and having them work the supposed Chinese legal limit of 60 hours a week?

      Macbook Pros already cost thousands of pounds. How much more would they cost if the people who made them worked in conditions that Europeans or Americans consider normal?

  2. Thanks, Ken, for that useful reminder. As well as the appalling exploitation involved in the production of our ‘toys’, it’s shocking to think how cavalier we are with them when they reach their sell-by date. Here are a few depressing facts (some of which I quoted recently on my own blog):

    “’E-waste’, as it’s now called, is the sobering dark side to even the rosiest view of an all-wired future. In America in 2005, more than 1.5 million tons of discarded electronic devices ended up in landfills, where high tech’s toxic metals… find their way into the soil, water tables and the air. … Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cell phones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day.…Our world has been wired by wildly inefficient technology – it takes roughly 1.8 tons of raw material… to manufacture one PC and its monitor” (p.113)

    Crowther, H. 2010. One hundred fears of solitude: The greatest generation gap. In Granta, 111.

    1. You’ve raised a lot of new issues here, Scott. I think anyone involved in education who uses a lot of tech equipment has to face up to them.

      Hopefully, the situation regarding discarding electronic devices has improved in the US and elsewhere since those stats, which are dated 2005. My experience in Canada is that the computer re-cycling business is booming and relatively efficient.

      Of all the points you’ve raised, maybe the most important is toxic waste. Here again there is sort of ‘good’ news with the changes that have taken place regarding dangerous PCBs in fridges and freezers that we campaigned against ten years ago, a campaign that seems to have had a positive effect.

      This is a link to changes re PCBs.

    1. That’s a fantastic site, Anthony, and shows without a doubt that we should stop using blackberry phones! The manufacturing company Research In Motion scores badly on sourcing its materials and as an employer.

      Unfortunately doesn’t have a section on computers yet. I hope they put that right soon. I’d be interested to see how Foxconn fare.

  3. Hmm…I saw the tabloid reports of this and thought, as with all the tabloidy-sensationalist stories(and I include the UK’s Telegraph in this category – they are the ones that seem to have started it), there’s a lot more to the Foxconn story than initially meets the eye.

    I also read the original Wired article back in March, which puts the situation in perspective. I think it’s worth pulling out a few quotes from this:

    “Whatever problems Foxconn has, it’s still one of the top places to work in the area.”
    “By many accounts, those unskilled laborers who get jobs at Foxconn are the luckiest.”

    Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not supporting the company at all, but I do think the problem here is one that is spread across all industry in China, and not restricted to the manufacture of high tech products for the West. If anything, the fact that companies like Foxconn rely on business from Western companies such as Apple means that there is a chance here for these companies (when embarrassed by the media, of course) to put the pressure on, and for real change to occur.

    One of the most interesting developments to have come out of the media’s focus on Foxconn is the changes the company has made to working conditions. This isn’t, as you say Ken just giving them a few more cents per hour, but it has started to have a real effect, with employees starting to be offered franchises and some other benefits are planned (read the original Wired article for details).

    As the Wired article concludes, it’s really up to companies to insist on good conditions for the workers: “We should encourage workers’ rights just as much as we champion economic development. We’ve exported our manufacturing; let’s be sure to export trade unions too.”

    As for the Foxcomm suicides, the 17 reported in Foxcomm in March being what grabbed the tabloid headlines, it’s been suggested that what partly lies behind this is not related to the working conditions at Foxconn (which are actually some of the best in China, although that’s not saying much) , but could actually be related to a generous offer made by the company to compensate families for the loss of life:

    “Foxconn pays 110,000 Yuan ($16,100) to the family of each person who dies. That’s ten years’ salary, on average.”


    It should also be noted that suicide rates are also lower at Foxconn than the Chinese national average (estimated 23 suicides per 100,000 people per year).

    So, what conclusions can we draw from this?
    1) Chinese working conditions need to be improved across the board.
    2) Companies such as Foxconn actually seem to be responding to criticism and doing this (unlike many of the sweatshops that clothing companies such as Nike use – see
    3) Consumers in the West should demand more ethical practice from the companies that make the consumer goods we buy – and be prepared to pay a higher price for them (to pay for this).

    Although it’s the mobiles and tablets that are getting all the attention (and blame) at the moment (I’m sure the word ‘iPad’ increases circulation tenfold), Let’s keep the big picture in mind.

    1. Thanks for that, Graham – a well-expressed alternative view.

      The one point you’ve made that I think we need to take issue with is this one: that the suicides ‘could actually be related to a generous offer made by the company to compensate families for the loss of life …ten years’ salary, on average.’

      Would YOU commit suicide if you knew your family would get ten years’ of your earnings? Doesn’t sound like a great career move to me!

      1. Hi Ken, no, I wouldn’t commit suicide for my family, but then again, I don’t live in the conditions the workers at Foxconn do, my family doesn’t need the money, etc.

        My point in linking to this report is that there is more to the story than first meets the eye. Interesting to note (and horrifying) that the workers there now have to sign a contract promising not to kill themselves. I think it’s obvious to me that the workers wouldn’t commit suicide just because of the money, but it might have been a consideration for some (i.e. ‘At least something good will come of this’) and might have contributed to some decisions to end it all.

  4. This was an interesting post. Thanks for sharing!
    I’m not sure exactly what I think yet. I don’t think that boycotting is exactly going to help the problem. I think more a raising of awareness, and getting people to encourage big corporations like Apple to explore opportunities to help improve the working conditions – but ultimately it will take something much bigger to help change the mindsets of these people.
    Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    1. Absolutely agree that a boycott isn’t the answer. I’ve heard the simplest way to get your message across to decision-makers like Steve Jobs, is to buy a share in the company and attend the annual shareholders’ meeting, then try to ask a question that gets national air time.

      Whole lotta problems sorting THAT one out, but may be an answer.

  5. Thanks for sharing this Ken. Awareness of these kind of issues are what announced my adulthood a little over a decade ago when I went to Africa and started reading Chomsky among other “less conventional” history writers.

    Why the madness in the world? What’s at its roots ?

    Watching “inconvenient truth” a few years ago put me on a journey and I’m still walking and wondering today. While living in China I did a ton of environmentalism reading, and started to finally see things from a different light.

    I found many answers that still seem true today, and yet I was troubled because I thought not many global citizens were aware of the core issues at hand. Furthermore, I feared few would really care even if they did know. Why? Comfort and Convenience seemed to dominate over truth and earth-health.

    SO, what are the answers ? Participate consciously within the system, and live locally is a good start, but I don’t think we need “programs” or “goals” or new “habits”, or “recycling”. We need a new vision.

    I believe this vision can come from learning what harmonious lifestyles DID work over 10,000 years ago when there weren’t large-scale wars, global warming, child slavery etc. What’s changed and why did it change?

    Authors like Daniel Quinn and Jared Diamond might point at the agricultural revolution as the beginning of something “very different” that has continued to “revolve” into today with quite an effect on both us and the environment (though is there really an “out there” and “in here”… isn’t it one big ocean and we’re saying “that wave, not this wave”.

    Alas, with all the fire in the world these days, I do need peace at times, so I’ll walk outside at night and look up at the stars. I wander between wonder and space, and feel deep down that we came from there and will return there one day too.

    Thanks again Ken for posing tough questions. I commend your trust and confidence in the community to accept tough messages and hopefully change and provide suggestions themselves. Cheers, b

    1. Brad,

      important thoughts you have!

      And your comment ‘Comfort and Convenience seemed to dominate over truth and earth-health’ is truly a motto for our times.

      However, I don’t think we should dismiss the “programs” or “goals” or new “habits”, or “recycling”, as you seem to. If you remember, at the end of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Al Gore DID point out that turning off lights, being thoughtful about water use and other local solutions can make a difference.

      We certainly need a new global vision, but at least there are local solutions for now.

      But these are much wider issues. I’ve tried to raise a single issue here – what do we do to make the next generation of electro-toys that we buy more ethically sound?

      1. Merci, Ken 🙂

        I’m a stubborn one, which I’ve found can be the best and toughest students to have in class, and maybe on a blog too. LOL

        I think my “wider” comment is the best answer I can give. For me, the electro-toy ecosystem is a serious issue, but I see it as a symptom of a larger disorder— huge social organizations that crush individuals in the name of …”foxconn” to cite your example.

        I agree that Al Gore’s programs can help, but that it’s not enough. I could try to explain my take on programs vs vision, but I think Mr Daniel Quinn did a great job of convincing me so I’ll let him take over from here.

        This is directly from his most concise and powerful book: “Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s next adventure”. The website below has a kinda odd name (especially as Quinn is agnostic) but it quotes exactly what we need, and Google conveniently found it in 0.18 seconds, so here it is:

        Thanks for accepting my stubbornness, and again, I’m really glad you are willing to push this kind of discussion.

      2. Part of the reason why I think we need to discuss this stuff is a general sense of unease brought about by the fact that it’s my generation who invented all the prototypes of this stuff, and also my generation of advertisers (ie post Mad Men) who made it OK to want to have them all.

        Our fault, your problem to solve.

  6. Hi Ken

    This is the first long post I’ve taken the time to properly read and follow up on in a few months of my “break” from the blogosphere. Thanks to you and the others for their comments – it’s made me think about what I consume and waste electronically. Off to recycle my now-dead phone, and thanks Anthony for pointing out that good shopping site as it stopped me getting a Blackberry!

    1. Hi Lindsay,

      welcome back to the blogosphere – it’s hard to stay away for too long. Re-cycling phones is quite easy, and I’ve found good charities to give my old laptops too. But the twin problems of production values and re-cycling of toxic computer waste still need to be solved. Is there much that people power can do?

  7. Ken,
    This is an important and valuable posting. The ethics of electronic hardware manufacture (and disposal) always feels a bit like the ‘elephant in the room’ in discussions of sustainable development and global citizenship. I tweeted a while back some questions about how to evaluate hardware for its ethical implications, but I didn’t get much back. (Only this review in Ethical Consumer, which looks interesting, but is behind a paywall: I would be interested in connecting with people concerned with this issue, and disseminating useful information on this topic.

    1. Thanks Paul!

      another excellent site … I guess this is a question of slow but sure wins the day, right? Unless Steve Jobs has a vision on the road to Damascus. 🙂

  8. We aren’t going to live without mobile phones and computers, are we? I don’t think life was much more harmonious 10,000 years ago, the strong exploited the weak then as well. People haven’t changed very much since prehistoric times.
    What can we do then? Maybe we shouldn’t rush after newer and more convenient gadgets, shouldn’t throw away some old ones so easily.
    Ken’s story reminds me of my daughter-in-law’s declaration to stop eating meat and become vegetarian in orderto live in peace with animals. People won’t stop eating meat. Have you had a sense of guilt when eating some ham today?

    1. Alicia,

      thanks for dropping by. And thanks for widening the discussion even more. I think you have raised the bigger issue of whether one person’s change of lifestyle affects the overall scheme of things.

      I think it does. The decision by my children to become vegetarians when they were in primary school, along with lots of their friends, may have been part of a nationwide movement . It may be why there is now so much vegetarian food in the supermarkets and in restaurants, at least here in London.

      When I first came to live here, there was one vegetarian food store in London, called Kranks. They called it that because they knew that people who went there would be seen as cranks, rather strange people. Not any more.

  9. Ken, Nicky Hockly sent me to your blog post, which I’ve read (including comments) with great interest. In particular, I enjoyed Graham’s critical examination of the media hype surrounding this story and Brad’s broader view of the context within which our consumption and disposal of technology (gadgets and ideas) takes place.

    My sense is that we have no paucity of concerning issues – quite the opposite, we now suffer form ‘sympathy fatigue’! So, as a flawed mortal, I work on those issues which are close to my heart, the ones I seem destined to grapple with. What more can one do? Rather than stretch myself too thin (I do sometimes), trying to be the perfect consumer or ‘live pure and simple’, a neurosis in itself, I find a more modest, personal approach deepens my experience. I hope your blog serves you that way. I certainly have enjoyed the thread that has been woven here.


    1. HI Rob,

      thanks for stopping by.

      Absolutely agree with your ‘sympathy fatigue’ point, but my sense is that these days there is much more of a ‘hide under the duvet and it will all go away’ attitude, whether the topic be exploited child miners or global warming,

      The view from my office window continues to be the verdant back gardens of well-heeled Londoners, so what’s the problem? We will continue to feel this way until the day that the nearby River Thames overflows its banks and floods the verdant scene, at which point we will scream and shout that the government didn’t act quickly enough.

      It IS possible for each of us to make a small difference. My biggest things recently have been to buy a hybrid car, stop eating red meat and buy more food from local sources. Now I’m going to see what my local council does about toxic computer waste and see if they can improve.

      Baby steps, but steps nonetheless.

  10. Thanks for your reply, Ken. Yes, I think our individual efforts are all of a piece, and none of us can really live as a purist, can we? I know what you mean about the well off masses being satisfied with their ‘bread and circus’ until the circus leaves town and there’s not enough bread to go around. I live in a city that is typically characterized as ‘progressive’, especially when it comes to being ‘green’ (verdant and eco-minded); however, many of us drive SUVs (perhaps a hybrid that gets 15 mpg instead of 10mpg) sporting Ralph Nadar bumperstickers to our local organic market, where we ignore the homeless guy outside the door selling StreetRoots (great paper, btw).

    What happens to the battery in your hybrid after it’s died? I’ve been a pescatarian since way back when, but fish, particularly the salmon I so love to eat, are on the decline.The height of irony, but hearts are in the right place.

    Just trying to say, we can never get it just right through consumer choices; we can only do our best. And what’s deemed ‘green’ today often becomes passe tomorrow. Do we evolve or go round in circles? 🙂


  11. Ken,

    I was in two minds about whether I wanted to read your article or not because, as Brad says, we like the comfort just too much.

    In general I’m not a conscientious scrutinizer of the products I buy (though I’ll choose Fair Trade whenever I can) but I am SO dependent on ICT (my computer, the Internet, my phones, projectors, mp3 player, etc.) that it’s one of the areas of purchase that I felt I should be more aware of.

    Thank you for raising my awareness. In retweeting and reblogging on this I hope I can raise more awareness.

  12. Thanks for posting this, Ken! I think it’s important to raise awareness of these issues.

    We’ve already discussed this over on Facebook and others have beaten me to what I would have said anyway, but I agree with you that small things can make a difference, such as donating old computers and phones to charities that will refurbish them and pass them on, rather than disposing of them.

    I’ve started to curate a list of articles about ethical issues connected with technology over on here, for people who are interested in finding out more:

    Ethical Issues In Technology


    1. Hello Sue!

      thanks for the inspiration.

      Making a difference if often a matter of channeling energy in the right direction, and some small steps are easier than others. Since researching this, I’ve found out a lot about re-cycling computers, but the issue of child slavery and children being forced to work is a much more complex one, with no easy solutions in sight.

      However, I was reassured a little that things can change, strangely enough after watching the TV BAFTAs last night, when one of the documentary winners said that their work in Zimbabwe had led to money being raised and changes being made.

      And the main thing is to stop people switching off and thinking there’s nothing they can do.

      Keep up the good work!

  13. Coincidence?
    A few hours after reading this blog entry about Foxconn I saw an article in the May 23 International Herald Tribune about an explosion at one of their plants in China.
    The Foxconn statement read: “Production has been suspended at the site of the explosion until the completion of the investigation. The safety of our employees is our highest priority, and we will do whatever is required to determine and address the cause of this tragic accident.”
    Near the end of the article it did mention that the company “came under fire for its working conditions last year after several Foxconn workers committed suicide”.
    It also mentioned that they have relocated many plants from the south of China to the interior where wages are lower.
    Thanks for bringing the name onto my radar.

    1. Thanks for that, Jeff! You win gold star for news scout of the day. 🙂

      The note about moving to the interior is quite serious. As you may have noted, Mr Gou is Taiwanese. In common with lots of Taiwan and Hong Kong based entrepreneurs, Mr Gou opened up factories in Guangdong Province – easy location for the HK people, just across the border with the New Territories. Shenzhen is in Guangdong Province.

      For a while after 1997, GD was like California during the Gold Rush, with millions of workers flooding there from the interior.

      If the relocations you mention gather force, I guess we will see a migration of workers out of GD. It all adds to the general destabilising effect of the rapid growth in China’s economy.

  14. The points brought up are very relevant, and the fact that computers are designed to be thrown away after 3 years is pretty terrible. The life of a super slow pc can be extended with ubuntu, (an easy to use linux) and a computer a couple generations old with ubuntu will often speed past a new windows machine on the web.

    3 things to reduce waste:

    1. remove your laptop battery if you are always plugged in. (constant charging kills it.)

    2. If your pc slows down a lot, consider trying it as a ubuntu machine: you can use it as an internet machine, and avoid viruses/security issues.

    3. Scrub it clean and donate it to a school. Here in Spain you would be suprised at how grateful many of them will be. I work in a school with a computer lab with computers less powerful than my phone… and they operate just fine!

    I think it was EF Schumacher who said “too many useless products make too many useless people”.


    On the positive side Commerce Resources has found tantalum in Canada, where the workers will be less exploited, and the production will be (hopefully) in keeping with environmental protection standards.

    Side note: My cousin Shaun is no longer Chief Financial Officer there, so I can’t float you guys special prices on tantalum any more. ; )

    1. Thanks, Matt!

      those are very positive and useful things to do. I keep repeating myself, but even very small changes – if adopted by thousands of people – will make a difference.

  15. My students learned about the human and environmental costs in a unit I created two years ago.

    They will be reading about child and adult slave labor in Pakistan and how we contribute to all of this.

    They did a performance task tracking where items they owned came from.

    Unfortunately, when these companies get caught, they say there was a third party contracting so they had no idea.

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