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Time for consumer action on Foxconn

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The giant electronics contractor Foxconn held its annual shareholders meeting in Hong Kong today. Foxconn builds a great many of the world’s best-known gadgets, iPhones and iPads among them. The recent string of suicides at the company’s factory in southern China — 10 since the beginning of the year — has raised the pressure on Apple and Foxconn’s other clients to do something.

Commentator Farhad Manjoo says customers of Apple and Dell and all the rest ought to do something, too.

By Farhad Manjoo

The tech industry only works because there are people in this world who are willing to spend 12 hours a day assembling gadgets in return for about $300 a month — less than the retail price of most of those gadgets in the Western world.

It’s easy to blame Apple, Dell and other companies for this state of affairs. But would the globe’s electronic giants be outsourcing to Foxconn, if we customers expressed moral misgivings about how our gadgets are made? The truth is we don’t know, because gadget consumers haven’t made a peep.

It’s time we start complaining. Reports from inside Foxconn paint daily life as something out of a dystopian novel. The factories house tens or hundreds of thousands of workers each, with everything that employees need provided by the company store. There is little support for employees who experience social or psychological problems.

China Labor Watch, a watchdog group based in New York, recently interviewed 25 workers at Foxconn. “We work faster than the machines,” the workers told CLW. “Every shift, we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all while standing up.”

I’m not proposing that we boycott Apple or any other company over outsourcing. That wouldn’t work, because we’d end up boycotting everything. But Apple and other companies have been responsive to shifts in consumer ethics in the past, and they might respond again if we customers let them know how we feel about labor conditions.

Next time you visit an Apple store, tell an employee that you care about the workers who made your iPad. Are you an Apple shareholder? Attend the company’s annual meeting and ask executives whether their production practices are sustainable over the long term. Or send an e-mail to Steve Jobs. He recently e-mailed a customer to promise that Apple is looking into working conditions at Foxconn. Let’s make sure to hold him to that.

Farhad Manjoo covers technology for Slate.

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