Your iPod glistens on your waistband, a totem of modern engineering brilliance, perhaps the most ubiquitous cultural icon of the 21st century so far. This shiny box of wires and lights has become a byword for a whole western youth demographic, the 'iPod generation'. But what does it say about a culture when its defining product, a product outwardly symbolising style and modernity, is accessible to that culture only through the exploitation of foreign labour?
Foreign labour exploitation? Yawn. Who wants a hippy tugging on the seam of your faux-distressed Diesel jeans, mumbling inanities about the guy in China who got paid £1.36 a day to solder your iPod together? No one. These are facts that we're not used to confronting when making a purchase decision in the glossy white foyer of Nike Town, or the glass and marble cathedral that is the Regent Street Apple Store. Frankly it's easier to ignore it. In fact, Apple assumes you won't be thinking about the workers in Foxconn's Longhua plant -- Apple's notorious iPod City. After all, you don't see the worker's faces in the iPod advertisements.
Back in June, The Mail on Sunday claimed that workers in Longhua live in dormitories of 100 people, and visitors are not permitted. The Mail also claimed that these people work a 15-hour day and earn £27 per month (this is now believed to be around £38 per month). The article also said that the compound was secured by police patrol.
Apple launched an investigation and responded to these claims on 17 August. The company reported that it found no evidence of enforced labour, and that the factory did not use children as workers.
Some find Apple's report flawed. Janek Kuczkiewicz, director of human and trade union rights at the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) said, "We are not impressed either by the report or by the findings of Apple." Kuczkiewicz criticised the small scale of Apple's investigation. He says Apple interviewed just 100 of an estimated 30,000 iPod workers.
Tellingly, Apple provided no information on the conditions under which the interviews with Longhua workers were held and the company's report has not been independently verified. Whether you believe Apple's statement would seem to depend largely on how much you trust a giant multinational corporation to report honestly on its cheap overseas labour practices.
Of course, Apple is not alone in its exploitation of cheap labour costs in Asia. You would be hard pressed to find an electronics manufacturer with a clean record. However, Apple's iPod publicly promotes themes of dance, music and freedom of choice, while covertly the company pays workers so little that they could never afford their own iPod. Should Apple, that once used the Dalai Lama in its advertising campaigns, feel ashamed to have come under this scrutiny?
Apple's revenue last quarter was $4.37bn. In the last three months it has sold eight million iPods. -Chris Stevens