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. The iPhone4 that I bought a couple of weeks ago almost certainly did. If I succomb to the temptation of buying an iPad, chances are again, at least part of it will have been 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).
Is the name ringing any bells yet? It should do. 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.
In an article on wired.com/magazine 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.
According to the stopchildslavery.com 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.