Putting a human cost on the iPad

An in-depth New York Times report focuses on the final months of a factory worker who died as a result of an explosion at a factory that makes iPads, as well as the conditions workers often endure.

Foxconn employees run for safety after a fatal explosion last May. YouTube

A day after Apple announced record profits, a new report provides a detailed look at the conditions that workers at its suppliers in China have had to endure.

The company, which reported $13 billion in profits yesterday , has been plagued by reports of long hours, unsafe working conditions, and physical punishment of employees in factories that make parts for its popular devices. Dozens have been injured and a handful killed in explosions and other accidents at the plants.

In a seven-month span last year, two explosions at iPad factories in China, including at the Chengdu facility, killed four and injured 77, according to The New York Times. In an exhaustive profile, Times reporters Charles Duhigg and David Barboza put a name and a face to the human price sometimes paid for those profits, spotlighting the final months of one of those workers who died that day in Chengdu.

It's unclear whether these allegedly unsafe working conditions have been thoroughly addressed. Apple previously adopted a code of conduct for suppliers, but the Cupertino computer maker did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNET this evening.

The report focuses on an explosion at a plant in Chengdu, in southwest China, last May killed four and injured 18. Chinese TV showed clouds of dark smoke emanating from the building and there were fears that the building's collapse was imminent.

In late 2010, Lai Xiaodong, a 22-year-old with a degree, moved to Chengdu, a city of 12 million in southwest China that has become one of the world's most important manufacturing hubs. Lai landed a $22 a day job repairing machines at Foxconn Technology's factory, where the iPad was being produced. (Foxconn has plants throughout China and produces roughly 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics for companies such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Sony.)

Apple's Supplier Code of Conduct states that plant workers are not to work more than 60 hours a week, except under emergency or unusual circumstances. However, according to the Times:

Mr. Lai was soon spending 12 hours a day, six days a week inside the factory, according to his paychecks. Employees who arrived late were sometimes required to write confession letters and copy quotations. There were "continuous shifts," when workers were told to work two stretches in a row, according to interviews.

At the end of the day, Lai would retreat to a bedroom just large enough for a bed that he shared with his girlfriend. Many of his co-workers weren't so privileged; company dorms house 70,000 employees, often squeezing 20 people into a three-bedroom apartment, according to the report.

Following the lead of other tech companies, Apple decided in 2005 that it needed the Code of Conduct to ensure "that working conditions in Apple's supply chain are safe, that workers are treated with respect and dignity, and that manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible." The company, which conducts annual audits of its component suppliers, recently reported that it had increased its audits by 80 percent compared with 2010.

Apple noted in its latest progress report (PDF), which was released after the Chengdu explosion, that it had "significantly" reduced instances of child labor but that the 60-hour work week rule was being observed only 38 percent of the time. The company also found "some violations" of its compliance code for environmental standards while examining 14 facilities, resulting in 58 facilities getting their air emissions systems treated.

Two weeks before the Chengdu explosion, an advocacy group warned of unsafe conditions (PDF) at the factory in a report. The group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, called the health and safety issues at Chengdu "alarming:"

"Workers do not have adequate training on usage of chemicals and do not have regular on-post health examination. Workers also highlight the problem of poor ventilation and inadequate personal protective equipment."

A copy of the report was sent to Cupertino, but the group never received a response, according to the Times.

Two hours into Lai's shift, a series of explosions rocked the building. Despite being burned over 90 percent of his body, Lai held on for two days. After delivering Lai's ashes to his family, Foxconn also wired a check for $150,000 to the family.

As unsettling as all this is, perhaps there's hope for overseas workers in Apple's announcement that it has joined the Fair Labor Association and that it will be providing more transparency when it comes to the making of its products.

In a recent report on why the success of some U.S. firms hasn't led to more U.S. jobs, The New York Times noted that almost all of the products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

As a current unidentified Apple executive points out to the Times: "You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."

 

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