Written by Chun-Yi Lee.
On 19 September 2014, Apple launched the iPhone 6 globally. From the long queue in front of Apple’s flagship store in Covent Garden in London, it is obvious that the iPhone still grabs many people. Meanwhile, Sacom issued a public announcement disclosing the drudge-like working conditions of Chinese workers labouring to produce iPhone 6’s bigger touch screen and clearer camera resolution. Sacom researchers have observed poor working conditions in China that lie behind many Apple products. But what about the mentality of consumers? I argue that the drudges are not limited to workers struggling with poor conditions, but include the people waiting in front of the Apple shops every time a new product is released.
It is difficult to avoid using sweatshop products nowadays, because Foxconn (Apple’s biggest subcontractor in China) produces almost all the components for not only Apple, but also Dell and Hewlett-Packard. Foxconn workers are no longer news to the world. In late May 2010, Foxconn faced a string of thirteen workers’ suicides in the southern part of Shenzhen. The death toll of Foxconn workers finally reached seventeen between 2007 and 2010. Foxconn was founded in 1974. It belongs to Hon Hai technology group, a Taiwanese-owned contract electronic manufacturer. Foxconn is a leader in design, manufacturing and after-sales services for computer, communication and consumer-electronics companies. It has 420,000 employees in Shenzhen, including 300000 at the infamous Longhua factory. As a Taiwanese processing factory, Foxconn is by far the biggest in China, with more than 820,000 employees nationwide. The Hon Hai Technology group has factories around the globe, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, India, Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil.
The major Chinese manufacturing strength lies in the processing trade. In 1999, Japan was the first supplier of China’s imports for processing (25 percent), but the New Industrialized Economies (NIEs) accounted for the largest share of these imports (40 percent), with Taiwan being the most important supplier followed by South Korea. By contrast, European and US firms contribute only marginally to the supply of goods for China’s processing industries. The structure of processing exports from China to Asian and western countries indicates that China became an export platform for Asian industries aimed at world markets, whereas western countries’ imports from China were aimed at domestic markets. Huang used a very interesting metaphor to describe this regional economic structure: This structure can be seen as a team of servants with China at the head, leading the others in providing cheap exports to the US and using its hard-earned savings to finance American purchases of those exports.
No matter how hard we try, we will unavoidably use products produced on an assembly line at a sweatshop somewhere in China. Nevertheless, what I think deserves some more discussion is not usual electronic appliance but the motivation of ‘Apple fans’ waiting periodically for new releases. The ‘Apple fans’ are after every new Apple product: they count the days until the next release, compare the functions of every new product to the old one. They demand bigger touch screens, clearer camera resolution, smarter phone settings. Would they care about those workers being subject to harsher work pressure, longer working hours, less workplace protection?
For them, to have an iPhone 6 is important not only because the functionality of iPhone is good, but, as one of my ‘Apple fans’ friend told me: it is like having a licence to be with another group of people, it is an identity of being an information ‘have-more’. You really feel different when you have an iPhone. There are millions of people who think similarly to my friend. According to a Bloomberg interview with Tim Cook, the ultimate goal is to establish an Apple Payment system, so users will be able to touch the screen of their iPhone or Apple Watch to initiate a payment. Gradually, not only this, but also the whole electronic warehouse will be controlled by iProducts.
My friend who patiently explained to me the benefits of all her electronic products being synchronized didn’t understand my question: Why do we want to be synchronized by one system, to be beholden to the Apple corporate system? For workers in China’s Foxconn factories it is not an option—they don’t have the financial capacity to purchase the products that they are making—an obvious example of alienation, from a Marxist perspective.
Dr Chun-Yi Lee is a Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. She studies Chinese labour. Image credit: CC by FullbridgeProgram/Flickr
 Ho-feng Huang, (2009), ‘America’s Head Servant? The PRC’s Dilemma in the Global Crisis’, New Left Review, Nov/Dec: 5, p. 16.