What would you rather do – stop the exploitation of child workers in Africa? Or pay $30,000 for a mobile phone?

The other evening, I was talking to my daughter Rowan and a couple of other people about phones and other devices and Rowan came up with an astonishing fact. If iPhones were made from scratch in the USA, they would cost US$30,000 to buy. That’s thirty thousand US dollars.

I checked it out online and a Forbes article I found actually estimated the cost would be between $30,000 and $100,000. You can read the article here.

Our conversation reminded me of a blog I wrote a while back about Foxconn, the Chinese company that assembles iPads, iPhones and other electronic equipment. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves once again how our glitzy technology is produced.

00 Foxconn-homepage
From the Foxconn website homepage

Foxconn is the world’s largest manufacturer of computer components, producing stuff for Apple, Sony and Nokia. It’s the largest private employer in mainland China and is owned by Terry Gou, who’s originally from Taiwan and started producing plastic parts for TV sets in a rented shed in a Taipei suburb called Tucheng in 1974. After a few months, the company employed ten workers. Now, forty-five years later, Mr Gou 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 also assembled by Foxconn in Shenzhen, 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 factory made the news in 2011.

Here’s an extract from an article from the French news agency AFP:

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. Foxconn workers earn about $200 a month, including overtime.

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

Nets between different buildings at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen

In an article on wired.com/magazine in February 2011, investigative journalist 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 was planning to commit suicide to provide for his family, the program of remuneration for the families of suicide victims was cancelled. 

 You can read more of the Joel Johnson article here.

While you’re mulling over the implications of all that, here’s another question: do you know what coltan is? I didn’t before I started reading up for the original blog.

Coltan is the industrial name for columbite-tantalite, a black metallic mineral from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. Tantalum is used in the manufacture of electronic capacitors, used in products such as computers and cell phones. It’s also used in DVD players and video games systems.

Now here’s the problem. Coltan is only found in 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.

00 Child labour
Congolese children working in a mine

I know, I know, there are scary stories about everything we consumers pay our hard-earned cash for, 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.

We all use computers and other devices, so we’re all part of the problem. Any suggestions as to how we can live a more guilt-free life and still be connected?


3 thoughts on “What would you rather do – stop the exploitation of child workers in Africa? Or pay $30,000 for a mobile phone?

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