iPhone Suicide Case Spotlights Tech’s Dark Side

The computer or smartphone you're using now, do you know who made it? Where it was made? Never mind the logo or brand on the case. It won't tell you much.

iPhone Suicide Case Spotlights Tech’s Dark Side
These questions once again bubble to the surface in wake of the death of Sun Danyong, an employee of Foxconn, who it is being widely reported committed suicide after losing an iPhone prototype. The IDG News service reports:

"This week's case of Foxconn, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, has asked Chinese police to investigate a case in which an employee reportedly committed suicide after being pressured over the loss of an iPhone prototype."

The report indicates the Chinese employee was "roughed up" by a Foxconn security official, and that the incident reveals "management shortcomings" at the company.

The incident shines a spotlight on the tech industry's dark side: How its products are made. In the developed world, we see the enlightened, progressive image the industry presents of itself -- green, clean, caring, and intent on making the world a better place.

But many consumers aren't aware that consumer electronics "manufacturers" usually don't manufacture the products they sell. There are no iPod factories in Cupertino. Tech products may be designed in the Developed World, but manufacturing is outsourced to places a lot less pleasant.

A quote from a Macworld article I wrote a few months ago on Apple's environmental policies:

"In the case of notebooks, for example, Apple -- like Dell, HP, and virtually every other computer vendor, confusingly dubbed Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) -- designs its systems but then outsources the assembly to contract manufacturers, also known as original design manufacturers (ODMs). While most of these ODMs have headquarters in Taiwan, their factories are usually in mainland China, where labor costs are lower and environmental standards are lax."

When I interviewed Casey Harrell, an electronics and e-waste expert for Greenpeace, for the Macworld article, here was his take on tech manufacturing in Asia:

"Our assessment is that there are pretty atrocious labor practices. It's an important issue that should be assessed."

Harrell went on to say that while Taiwan wasn't exactly a "hotbed of progressive behavior," ODMs didn't build tech products there because there are "too many laws in Taiwan that give people rights."

"They make then in mainland China instead," he said.

Harrell wasn't criticizing Apple or its suppliers directly, but rather referring to the tech industry as a whole.

Foxconn's labor practices have been criticized in the past. Also from today's IDG News story:

"Allegations of trouble with Foxconn workers in China have bitten Apple before. The U.S. company and its relationship with Foxconn was brought to light three years ago when a British newspaper wrote about allegedly poor pay and long hours for iPod assembly line workers. Apple conducted its own review of the facility but found few violations of its supplier code of conduct."

After the latest Foxconn incident, Apple released a statement that it was "saddened by the loss of this young employee," and that it requires its suppliers to "treat all workers with dignity and respect." The company monitors its suppliers, which must follow a fairly extensive code of conduct.

I have no reason to doubt Apple's sincerity here. I do believe that management in Cupertino cares about the people who make iPods, iPhones, and MacBooks. Still, there appears to be disconnect between the designers at 1 Infinite Loop and at least one company that build its products.

To be fair, the latest incident may have been the act of a rogue employee, rather than a business-as-usual tactic by Foxconn management. But given the company's history of poor labor relations, one must wonder.

It's time for Apple -- and the tech industry as a whole -- to better monitor its contract manufacturers.

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