Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Dying for a new iPad?

This headline is certainly alarming - "Tenth worker at iPad factory commits suicide":

The Foxconn factory in the southern Chinese boom town of Shenzhen is so vast that walking around its outer perimeter takes two hours. Its workers turn out components that are supplied to big Western electronics brands including Nokia, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. And it is here that most of the parts for Apple's iPhone, and the much-awaited iPad, which goes on sale in the UK this week, are manufactured.

Yesterday, Li Hai, a 19-year-old employee of the firm, jumped from the top of the building in Shenzhen to his death. It brought the number of suspected suicides at the factory this year to 10. There have been another two attempted suicides.

All of the deaths have been of youngsters between 18 and 25 years old. Li Hai had only been working at the plant for 42 days. The incidents have prompted intense soul-searching in China, about conditions in its factories and the social cost of breakneck economic development.

Are there reasons to be skeptical about the story? You bet. For one thing, it's a window on how the "media mind" (an oxymoron, I know) works, since the stories -- including this one in the New York Times -- all stress that it's the iPad factory, even though they make hundreds of products there, but anytime you can mention an iPad it sends a thrill up the leg of most editors. Meanwhile, Gizmodo, tacking against the anti-Apple winds, notes that an estimated 300,000 people -- that looks like a typo, but it's not...300-freaking-thousand people! -- work at the Foxconn site, which means when you do the math the suicide rate isn't that extraordinary.

That said, even if the suicides are not abnormal, there are several disturbing things about this. First of all, if you're a blue-collar American and you wonder where your job you know. Because the world is flat, Apple and Dell and Nokia can make your iPad, or whateve,r a lot cheaper -- but to get enough people for such a large factory in China, millions of young people are uprooted from their hometowns and their extended family, the kind of things that once made young people with backbreaking factory jobs less likely to jump off a balcony. Regardless of whether you agree that the working conditions here are linked to the suicides, the "sausage-making" of how they make iPads is quite ugly:

Chinese media have suggested that what is driving the suicides is the feeling among the workers that they are machines. Many start work at 4am, then go through the motions thousands of times over during their often long shifts. "Every shift we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all the while standing up," one Foxconn worker told China Labour Watch for a recent report.

But there may be a solution!

The company, which employs over 800,000 workers around the world, is now playing soothing music along the production lines. Over 2,000 singers, dancers and gym trainers have been recruited, and the group is also hiring psychiatrists and Buddhist monks to help with stress. New fences are also being installed on every worker's dormitory building, according to local media, which are up to three metres high and are meant to prevent suicidal workers from jumping off the roof.

So let's review -- our favorite consumer products aren't made here, with our 10 percent unemployment rate, but instead shipped halfway around the world to a low-wage factory that's so dehumanizing that the young, migrant workers are miserable at best and suicidal at worst.

Is there an app for that?