So far this year, 10 workers at Foxconn -- a Chinese electronics factory that makes the iPad -- have committed suicide. Many more have tried to killed themselves but failed.
If it wasn't for our insatiable hunger for new gadgets, these people might have to work even crappier jobs. Like farming.
What's going on?
As Farhad Manjoo reports, a combination of a high-stress environment and warped incentives are contributing to the deaths.
Foxconn makes iPods, iPads, Wiis and PCs. Name a gadget, and there's a good chance it was built by one of the company's 800,000 workers.
Conditions on Foxconn's sprawling campus are better than those at the sweatshops that normally engender consumer backlash. And Foxconn's suicide rate is actually lower than the Chinese average. But that doesn't mean the work is easy.As Manjoo reports, a watchdog group that interviewed Foxconn workers found them to be over-worked and over-stressed. Which makes sense when you consider that, during an average 12-hour shift, a computer assemblyman will help construct 4,000 Dells while standing the entire time.
Foxconn's employees are mainly rural Chinese. And the math suggests that their destitute families would be better off with them dead, rather than alive.
Employees make roughly $300 a month. A take-home pay in line with the Chinese minimum wage but not nearly as lucrative as the $16,000 the company shells out in death benefits.
This is bracing stuff. And probably not what most people want to think about when they visit their nearest Apple store or Best Buy.
Tech lovers should no doubt be aware of what's going on at Foxconn. It's the policy of most large companies to ignore the problem in hopes that it will go away. As Manjoo suggests, the best thing a consumer can do is be educated, ask good questions and apply pressure where possible.
(Or just e-mail Steve Jobs, since that seems to be the best way to get in touch with him these days.)
But don't feel guilty. Take it from a reformed Catholic, guilt won't get you anywhere. It's an emotion that takes the place of an action. And action -- like the action of asking the Apple employee selling you your iPad, "So where does this thing come from?" -- is what's required.
Besides, if every product we bought, sold or filled our cars up with was analyzed with the rigor brought to Foxconn's iPads, the American economy would grind to a halt. Since no one would very much feel like getting out of bed, on account of all those poor third-worlders who suffered so that we may wear slippers.
If you want to feel guilty about buying an iPad, do it for a more constructive reason. Like the fact that with every tablet sold, Microsoft looks progressively more inept. But just remember, they brought that on themselves.