How Badly Does the World Need iPads?

Man poses as Apple's Steve Jobs at protest in Hong Kong

Are these gadgets really worth the sacrifice of workers’ lives? I admit I’m not an Apple enthusiast, but I don’t think so. Last year there was a series of suicides at Foxconn plants and on Friday, there was a fatal explosion at a Foxcomm iPad factory in Chengdu, China, that killed two workers and injured 15 others. Today a third employee died from injuries sustained in the blast.

Company officials said the explosion occurred on Friday May 20 in one of the polishing workshops at the factory, and that the initial finding of a joint investigation task force led by government officials and law enforcement authorities was that combustible dust exploded in a duct.

A little more detail from

…the Chinese government in Chengdu has taken over the plant, censoring the information flow to the extent that local newspapers aren’t reporting about it.

With numerous workers committing suicide at the company’s Shenzhen-based iPad plant last year, Foxconn attempted to remedy the situation by giving them raises, but still needed to increase the production capacity to meet increasing demand. As a result, the new factory was built, an enormous eight-building complex hastily constructed in a record-breaking 70 days to accommodate the voracious demand for the iPad 2.

Soon after the factory was built…Apple’s inspection team visited the facility, taking two days to inspect the buildings, production lines and “especially the workers’ dormitories.” After its inspection, Apple approved the plant for manufacturing iPads.

After the suicides in 2010, the group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) investigated the factories and produced a report (pdf) that documents the horrors of the working conditions in Foxconn’s factories.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the study found that slave labor-type conditions are still in effect at the factories. Workers are now forced to sign “no-suicide pacts,” and they are routinely humiliated by “military-style managers.” They may have to work as much as 100 hours of overtime per month, and are still not paid a living wage–they earn only about $186 per month. And Foxconn “routinely” fails to pay workers the correct amounts they have earned. This is after Apple visited the factories and approved the wages and working conditions!

Conditions at Foxconn’s two Chengdu factories, which exclusively produce Apple iPads, were among the worst reported. While nets have been installed to catch suicidal workers, factory staff are reportedly required to sign “no-suicide” pacts which also give licence to Foxconn to institutionalise them if it sees fit.

Workers at Chengdu say they are routinely humiliated and scolded by management. One was forced to stand in a corner with his hands behind his back because he giggled with a colleague. Others have been required to write confession letters to their supervisors after making mistakes and in some cases read the letters out in front of colleagues.

“Some of my roommates weep in the dormitory. I want to cry as well but my tears have not come out,” said 19-year-old Chengdu worker Chen Liming.

Ah Ming, 19, who produces cases for the iPad, said he stands for at least 14 hours a day. He wakes up at 7am to queue for the bus to the factory and it is 9pm by the time he returns home every evening.

The report also found that workers don’t

have adequate protections to safeguard against occupational health and safety issues such as aluminium dust and harsh reactions from chemicals used in the production process.

“I’m breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner. My nostrils are totally black every day,” one male worker said.

From the aptly named “Crave” blog at

SACOM researchers visited Foxconn plants in Chengdu, where iPads are produced; in Chongqing, a smaller facility making mostly HP products; and Foxconn’s huge campus in Shenzhen, where half a million workers assemble a variety of computers, mobile phones, and additional products for Apple, HP, Nokia, Dell, and others. The researchers claim to have observed a number of problems at the Chengdu facilities in particular:

Workers do not have adequate training on usage of chemicals and do not have regular on-post health examinations. A number of interviewees even complain they suffer from allergy, but the management does not probe into the adverse health impacts of workers. Workers also highlight the problem of poor ventilation and inadequate personal protective equipment.

While SACOM notes the lack of ventilation as a possible threat to workers’ respiratory health, it appears that it may also have been a contributing factor to Friday’s explosion, which reportedly was centered in the “polishing” section of Foxconn’s facilities.

According to the report, the polishing department is filled with aluminum dust and there is inadequate ventilation.

Both aluminum and magnesium are commonly used ingredients in industrial polish–magnesium is a highly flammable metal used in fireworks, flares, and flash powder. A buildup of such dust due to improper ventilation could have created dangerous conditions.

I don’t know about you, but I’m very glad I don’t have an iPad, because if I did I’d be tempted to trash it right about now. If this is what it takes to produce a gadget that appears to be little more than a glorified cell phone that doesn’t do much other than provide entertainment and status to its users, I say it’s not worth it.

21 Comments on “How Badly Does the World Need iPads?”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Financial Times:

    Local media said production could resume at the Taiwanese-owned factory as early as this week.

    The plant, which opened last October, was to produce most of Apple’s second-generation iPad 2 tablet computers. The “facility is an important producer of the iPad 2 for Apple, as production was shifted from facilities in Shenzhen”, said Brian White, an analyst at Ticonderoga Securities.

    But other analysts said over the weekend that they believed full production had not yet shifted to the Chengdu plant.

    Shares in both Hon Hai and Apple dipped only slightly after the explosion, reflecting that belief….

    If the Chengdu plant resumes production soon or is not the main source of iPads, RBC analyst Mike Abramsky said Friday, the impact to Apple’s bottom line would be minimal. Even a one-month delay at Chengdu would affect fewer than 1.3m units, reducing revenue by under $800m, less than 3 per cent of Apple’s expected sales for the quarter.

    Oh good. We wouldn’t want any of the investor class members to be inconvenienced by a few worker deaths and injuries.

    • dakinikat says:

      Here’s more:

      Just as Wintek has scored the contract to make touchscreens for the white iPhone 5, Chinese workers at the Taiwanese company’s Suzhou plant have urged Apple to look into the slate of chemical poisonings at the plant which they said could still hurt their health.

      The issue is hexyl hydride, a chemical used by Wintek between May 2008 and August 2009 instead of alcohol to speed up production of Apple touchscreens. In an open letter published in a local Chinese newspaper, workers referred to hexyl hydride as “a killer that strikes invisibly.”

      Symptoms of hexyl hydride poisoning include sudden numbness in hands, swelling and pain in the feet, tiredness and faintness. Long-term exposure can lead to permanent nerve and eye damage. 137 Wintek workers had been hospitalized because of the poisonings.

      Don’t you just love that regulation free market?

      I’m so glad that you’re mentioning how many of our toys are being produced at a really high human cost overseas. It’s awful!!!

      • bostonboomer says:

        Can you imagine working in a place where the management has to install nets to catch workers trying to kill themselves?

      • Jadzia says:

        Probably would have been a good idea at my last workplace.

      • Minkoff Minx says:

        This is appalling, I am so glad we don’t have any ipads either, cause I would have a hard time “playing with it” after reading this.

        I am disgusted.

        And the suicide nets…seems surreal. Makes you wonder if there is more than the mental abuse and humiliation. Sounds like that combined with sleep deprivation and side effects from all the toxins could be at work too. Disgusting.

    • Seriously says:

      Nobody cares about things that are happening right under their noses. Right here, Upper Crust pizza chain’s been freighting in people from this town in Brazil, forcing them to work upwards of 80 hours without overtime, forcing delivery people to lie if they get hit by cars or hurt on the job, not even paying minimum wage, and when they were ordered to pay restitution they made the workers refund the money or be fired, but I walk by the stores all the time, there are no protestors, they seem busy, I doubt their bottom line has been hurt at all. It’s not like there aren’t other upscale yuppie pizza places they could go to, but no one can be bothered one little bit, especially the vaunted Gen Obama. Great piece!

      • bostonboomer says:

        How horrible. I’m so out of touch with local news. Did you see the story about how the wells in Woburn are still poisoned after thirty years?

      • Seriously says:

        That’s incredible! My god!

        From Cape Cod to the Berkshires and beyond, few communities are left untouched by the contamination. With between 3,000 and 5,000 polluted sites currently listed with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and 40,000 others already cleaned up by that agency since 1985, the state remains a patchwork of toxicity.

        And the thing is, people TRUST the government to protect them. They’re not Erin Brocoviching it down at the Water Bureau trying to figure out if the water is safe to drink or the food is safe to eat. We believe that if our water were unsafe, the state would tell us and shut down the wells. The fact that nobody seems to know or care about the extent of human exposure at these sites is shocking.

      • paper doll says:

        The fact that nobody seems to know or care about the extent of human exposure at these sites is shocking.

        Indded. We see in Japan, even nuclear meltdown in the way of disastrous results from the Fed up thinking( building four poorly designed reactors on a earth quake fault line) doesn’t get those in charge to change how they operate one bit ….so apparently nothing will

  2. Minkoff Minx says:

    This is an amazing post BB…

  3. twig says:

    Thanks so much for this, BB. The human cost of producing so much of what we use every day is truly horrendous. This is a great piece for getting the word out!

  4. Thanks for the post, BB. This is appalling, especially the lack of ventiallation… I have an aunt who recently died from lung disease due to cleaning in an unventilated area back in India. So I’m particularly sensitive to stories about this lately.

    Foxconn also makes various e-readers, which is a bummer, as I’ve grown really fond of mine! But as you point out in your post, there seems to be something going on specific at the Ipad factories in Chengdu. I don’t have an Ipad and have no interest in getting one, but after a string of bad PC experiences, I finally switched to the Macbook — which I’m happy with. but I’m really disturbed that Apple approved the wages and conditions.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I know it’s not just Apple, but it does seem that they haven’t done much to change the situation. There are plenty of clothing lines that are associated with this kind of horror–like Nike. I try to buy clothes made in the U.S.–but there are sweatshops here too, as Seriously pointed out above.

      • dakinikat says:

        Those politicians that say we have too many regulations should be forced to work under those inhumane conditions. I would rather pay more and not have blood on my hands.

  5. paper doll says:

    Amazing post and so very important. I totally reject the idea this is the way it HAS to be. It’s not. Enough .

    No object is worth a person living like this for one hour.

  6. Sima says:

    Great article.

    The suicide net thing really hit me. Really hard. When I was a young adult I worked testing integrated circuits. The job was a really good one, safe, well inspected. It was the US. A few years after I went to college I heard they’d closed up the testing facilities at which I’d worked and moved it all to the Orient.

    I can’t imagine how awful conditions must be to turn something like that job I worked into a thing that requires suicide nets. I can’t imagine an employer so cold hearted that they’d erect nets instead of actually DEALING WITH THE FRACKING PROBLEM!!!!! (Got a little irate there).

    I’ve never bought an Apple product, probably never will. I don’t like proprietary systems, even yuppie approved ones. I will not fail to mention to all my friends who yearn for or possess ipads what those things cost in real human terms. I’m sure I’ll get a blank look and then a ‘well, what do you want ME to do about it?’ whine.

  7. Delphyne says:

    I bought an iPhone and a MacBook Pro last year. A few weeks ago, I heard about the suicide nets in the place where Apple has their manufacturing done. It made me ill.

    My computer and phone will probably be the last Apple products I buy unless they clean up their act. Since my computer and phone are so new, they will most likely last me for years and I won’t have the need to shop for new ones anytime soon.

    Socially responsible business is any oxymoron.