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Foxconn suicides

June 10, 2010

The fair-trade movement has made its way into the food and textiles branches. Now, rights activists are trying to raise consumer awareness about how our cell phones and other personal electronics are made.

cardboard picture of an iphone set on fire
Activists burned iPhone images in effigy during Foxconn protestsImage: AP

With Apple launching its fourth-generation iPhones, activists took to the streets this week in cities including Berlin, Taiwan and Hong Kong to protest the conditions under which many of today's electronics are produced.

They specifically called for the commemoration of at least 10 workers who recently committed suicide at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. With more than 800,000 employees, Foxconn is one of the world's largest makers of electronics. They produce iPhones, iPads, and other internet technology devices like cell phones, mp3 players and laptops. Their clients include Nokia, Dell and Nintendo aside from Apple.

Foxconn workers standing on their balconies in an apartment block
Ten Foxconn workers committed suicide by jumping out of buildingsImage: AP

Critics say the suicides are tied to the extremely difficult working conditions in the factories.

Petition drive for fair phones

The Europe-wide consumer rights group makeITfair has launched a postcard action, urging people to demand fair and green products from their mobile phone providers.

"Fair phones do not exist," said makeITfair coordinator Irene Schipper of the Germanwatch consumer rights group. The group cites labor rights issues within the mobile phone supply chain such as high production quotas, long working days, forced overtime, low wages and denying workers the right to organize.

The problems go beyond labor issues, starting at sourcing the material components for mobile phones, said Cornelia Heydenreich, Senior Advisor for Corporate Accountability at Germanwatch.

A cardboard cutout of Apple CEO Steve Jobs portrayed with devil's horns and paper figures symbolizing Chinese workers are placed by protesters outside a Foxconn's annual general meeting during a protest in Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2010.
Protesters portrayed Apple's Steve Jobs as the devil himselfImage: AP

"It starts with the mining of metals," Heydenreich told Deutsche Welle. "Human rights are often violated when mines are opened in developing countries and people have to move to another place, but that's only the beginning."

Controversy over coltan

The use of controversially mined metals in mobile phones - particularly coltan - has been at the center of heated ethics debate surrounding cell phone production for years. Observers say coltan smuggling is a major source of income for criminal militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while failing to enrich the people living there.

Moreover, the coltan trade plays a large role in fueling the ongoing brutal conflict in DRC, and its mining has created a child labor market. Also, excessive mining has caused land erosion, polluted water supplies and disrupted the food chain, activists say.

The production chain for electronic devices is complex, Heydenreich said. A large percentage of the components for mobile phones and laptops are produced in Asia, and 50 percent of mobile phones are made in China.

"There, we see a lot of violations of workers' rights. They have to work long hours for very low wages, and in the IT industry they have to use a lot of chemicals, which has a bad impact on their health," she said.

Foxconn assembly line workers packing boxes
Foxconn workers complain about bad working conditionsImage: AP

Some firms ignore labor rules

Meanwhile, high production quotas are set, and salaries are docked if targets aren't met. Most workers interviewed by China Labor Watch complained about their intensive workload, makeITfair reported.

"In many places the workers don't have good trade unions or an organization at all that is arguing for their rights," Heydenreich said. "So even if they have very good (labor) laws on paper sometimes they are not implemented.

In the wake of the demonstrations and amid storms of publicity about the worker suicides, Foxconn agreed to raise wages. A company spokeswoman announced this week that assembly line workers in Shenzhen will have their monthly wages increased from $176 to $290 from October if they pass a performance test. Foxconn had already announced a 30 percent pay rise last Wednesday. Foxconn said it believes the wage hike will lessen the pressure on workers to do overtime.

The company told the Financial Times newspaper that it would pass on "as much as possible" of the higher costs to customers.

Yet consumer advocates like Heydenreich point out that wages for factory workers make up only a small part of the total cost of a smart phone compared to the money spent on marketing and developing a product.

Blaming the customer?

As for Apple, they had an embarrassing moment in the spotlight as a result of the Foxconn deaths, timed as they were to the eve of the iPhone 4 rollout.

While tragic, the suicides also brought an issue to light that otherwise gets little attention, Heydenreich told DW: "Now the topic is on the news and TV, which wasn't happening before. It's sad. Sometimes there need to be fundamental problems before a sector really starts to change."

Until now, mobile phone operators such as T-Mobile and Vodafone have responded to activists' calls for fair-trade electronics devices by saying that consumer demand for such products is low.

Person holding several mobile phones
The mobile industry will probably sell more than one billion cell phones in 2010Image: picture-alliance / maxppp

"That's why we want to mobilize consumers with this action card to ask their network operators to offer a phone made under decent working conditions. We believe that consumers want that choice," makeITfair's Schipper said.

Awareness is an issue

Yet Britain's Independent newspaper cited a survey earlier this year by Covalence, a company that tracks the ethical reputation of multinationals, which shows that consumers lack an understanding of the issues surrounding fair trade and consumer electronics. The Covalence survey found that technology companies are portrayed as the most ethical in the world, the Independent reported.

Heydenreich said she believed a publicity campaign aimed at phone makers and service providers could have an impact. She cited earlier petition campaigns that had an impact on the way companies sourced and recycled metals.

In addition, consumers could effect change by changing their own behavior - and by generally rethinking the way they use and pay for their IT gadgets.

"Consumers can think about whether they need a new phone every year or every second year - that is the average," Heydenreich said. "Using the existing phone longer would also help to save resources."

And when people need a new phone, they should take care to recycle their old one so the metals in it can be reused and less mining is done in developing countries, Heyenreich added.

Whether or not the campaign for fair phones will have a powerful effect remains to be seen. But consumer advocates are betting that people will want to know who is making their consumer products, and how. And with the race for market share increasingly intense in cell phones and smart phones, adopting a fair image might eventually pay off for manufacturers.

Author: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Anke Rasper