Foxconned Labour as the Dark Side of the Information Age: Working Conditions at Apple’s Contract Manufacturers in China. Marisol Sandoval

Information and Communication Technologies (icts) have played a double role in the restructuring of capitalism since the 1970s. On the one hand they enable fast transnational communication that is needed for organising international markets and value chains. On the other hand the production of these technologies is itself based on an international supply network (Dyer-Witheford 2014;Hong 2011, 9).

Nick Dyer-Witheford therefore describes the value chain as “the dirty secret of the digital revolution” (Dyer-Witheford 2014). Part of this “dirty secret” is that “the global information economy is built in part on the backs of tens of millions Chinese industrial workers” (Zhao and Duffy 2008, 229).

The clean, immaculate and advanced surface of modern computer products hides the dirty reality of their production process. Concepts such as “digital sublime” (Mosco 2004) or “technological sublime” (Maxwell and Miller 2012, 7) suggest that certain myths and utopian ideals are attached to media and communication technologies. Maxwell and Miller argue that this has as a consequence that the “way technology is experienced in daily life is far removed from the physical work and material resources that go into it” (Maxwell and Miller 2012, 7).

The tendency even of critical scholarship to focus on how the usage of icts as production technologies is transforming work, perpetuates the technological sublime rather than unmasking it. In this vein Hardt and Negri for example highlight that the “contemporary scene of labour and production […] is being transformed under the hegemony of immaterial labor, that is labor that produces immaterial products, such as information, knowledge, ideas, images, relationships, and affects” (Hardt and Negri 2004, 65).

Even if they recognize that the rise of “immaterial labour” does not lead to the disappearance of industrial labour the term tends to mystify the actual impact of icts and digital technologies on work and workers on a global scale. Before and after icts serve as theinstruments of the mental labour of software developers, journalists, designersnew media workers, prosumers etc. their production and disposal is shaped byvarious forms of manual work such as the extraction of minerals, the assembly of components into the final product and the waste work needed for their disposal.

Conceptualizing digital labour only as mental and immaterial labour misrepresents the character of icts and digital technologies as it tends to downplay the physical and manual labour that goes into them.

The notion of immaterial labour only focuses on the bright side of the expansion of communication, interaction and knowledge, while leaving its dirty counterpart in the dark. What is rather needed is demystification by fostering “greater transparency in working conditions throughout the ict/ce supply chain” in order to shed light on the work and life realities of “workers who disappear in the twilight zone of the technological sublime” (Maxwell and Miller 2012, 108).

As Vincent Mosco argues, only if computer technologies “cease to be sublime icons of mythology […] they can become important forces for social and economic change” (Mosco 2004, 6).

This chapter contributes to this task of demystification as it looks at the working conditions in Chinese assembly plants of one of the world’s most dominant and most admired computer companies: Apple Inc.

Studying Apple is important because the company represents both the mental and the manual side of digital labour: For many years Apple’s products have been known as the preferred digital production technologies for the knowledge work of designers, journalists, artists and new media workers. iPhone, iPod and Co are symbols for technological progress that enables unprecedented levels of co-creation and sharing of knowledge, images and affects as well as interaction, communication, co-operation etc. At the same time during the past years Apple has become an infamous example for the existence of hard manual labour under miserable conditions along the supply chain of consumer electronics.

In this chapter I therefore use the example of Apple for highlighting that an adequate conceptualization of digital labour must not ignore its physical and manual aspects.

In the first section I give a brief overview of the developments that led to the rise of China as the “workshop of the world.” In Section 2 I contrast Apple’s business success with allegations from corporate watchdogs regarding bad working conditions in the company’s supply chain. In order to examine these allegations in greater detail I then introduce a systematic model of working conditions (Section 3) and apply it to Apple’s contract manufacturers in China (Section 4).

Finally, I discuss Apple’s response to labour rights violations (Section 5) and conclude with some reflections on solidarity along the global value chain (Section 6).

1 The Rise of China as “Workshop of the World”

The rise of neoliberal globalization and international value chains is generally considered as a reaction to the crisis of Fordist capitalism in the 1970s (Fröbel, 352 Sandoval Heinrichs and Kreye 1981; Smith 2012, 40; Harvey 2005, Munck 2002, 45). Part of the restructuring of capitalism was the gradual relocation of large parts of production activities from the industrialized core of the world economy to the former periphery.

In this context Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye coined the concept of the “new international division of labour” (nidl). They argue that:

“The development of the world economy has increasingly created conditions (forcing the development of the new international division of labour) in which the survival of more and more companies can only be assured through the relocation of production to new industrial sites, where labour-power is cheap to buy, abundant and well-disciplined; in short, through the transnational reorganization of production” (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 15).

As a consequence, commodity production became “increasingly subdivided into fragments which can be assigned to whichever part of the world can provide the most profitable combination of capital and labour” (Fröbel, Heinrichs and Kreye 1981, 15). The result was the emergence of global value chains and production networks in various industries including the electronics sector.

This development had a substantial impact on labour relations and working conditions around the world. As the global labour force expanded (Munck 2002, 109) the protection of labour rights was weakened. McGuigan argues that neoliberal restructurings and the rise of post-Fordism led to “an attack on organized labour in older industrialised capitalist states and devolution of much manufacturing to much cheaper labour markets and poor working conditions of newly industrialising countries” (McGuigan 2005, 230).

The rise of China as the “workshop of the world” needs to be seen in the context of these developments. Hung stresses that “China’s labour-intensive takeoff coincided with the onset of an unprecedented expansion of global free trade since the 1980s” (Hung 2009, 10). The integration of China into global capitalist production networks was made possible by a number of policy reforms pursued by the Chinese state.

David Harvey highlights that the Chinese economic reform programme initiated in the late 1970s coincided with the rise of neoliberalism in the us and the uk (Harvey 2006, 34). This reform program included the encouragement of competition between state owned companies, the introduction of market pricing as well as a gradual turn towards foreign direct investment (Harvey 2006, 39).

The first Special Economic Zones (sez) in China were established in 1980 (Yeung et al. 2009, 223). The first four sez were located in the coastal areas of south-east China: Shantou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai in Guangdong province and Xiamen in Fujian Province (Yeung et al. 2009, 224). By 2002, David Harvey argues, foreign direct investment accounted for more than 40 percent of China’s gdp (Harvey 2006, 39).

Hong highlights that China was particularly interested in entering the market for ict production. In order to boost exports, tax refunds for the export of ict commodities were set in place In the 1990s (Hong 2011, 37). In 2005 import tariffs for semiconductor, computer and telecommunication products were removed (Hon

removed (Hong 2011, 37). These policies proved effective: Hong argues that “In the global market China has emerged as leading ict manufacturing powerhouse: In 2006, China became the world’s second largest ict manufacturer, and ict products manufactured in China accounted for over 15 percent of the international trade of ict products” (Hong 2011, 2).

The fact that attracting foreign direct investment was made possible by granting tax exemptions means that foreign companies could make use of Chinese land area and exploit Chinese labour, while paying only little back to the Chinese public through taxes. Hong shows that by 2005 40.4 percent of ict companies in China were foreign enterprises, which controlled 71.1 percent of all profits from the industry, but due to tax benefits these foreign invested ict enterprises only made up 42.3 percent of the total tax contribution of the sector (Hong 2011, 38).

An effect of the shift towards pro-market policies and the privatization of state enterprises was the massive commodification of labour (Su 2011, 346).

The newly established market for labour power replaced the previous system in which workers were guaranteed employment as well as social welfare including medical care, education opportunities, pensions and housing (Friedman and Lee 2010, 509). Zhao and Duffy point out that the adoption of a policy towards foreign direct investment in the ict sector and the privatization of industries also meant a weakening of the power of the Chinese working class. Older industrial workers were replaced by young, often female migrant workers (Zhao and Duffy 2008, 230).

Low wages and cheap production costs made China attractive for companies in search for outsourcing opportunities. Hung argues that the prolonged stagnation of wages resulted from Chinese government policies that neglected and exploited the rural agricultural sector in order to spur urban industrial growth (Hung 2009 13f). This situation forced young people to leave the countryside in order to find work in the city, creating a “limitless supply of labour” (Hung 2009, 14) while reinforcing “a rural social crisis” (Hung 2009, 14).

Among the companies that are taking advantage of the cheap labour supply in China is the computer giant Apple.

2 Apple: Clean Image Versus Dirty Reality

Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs and Ronald Wayne founded Apple in 1976 (Linzmayer 2004, 6). However, it was not until the mid 2000s that Apple joined the elite of the most profitable companies in the world. In 2005 Apple’s profits for the first time exceeded 1 billion usd and during the following years continued to increase rapidly until they reached 41.7 billion usd in 2012 (Apple SEC-Filings.10-k form 20122), which made Apple the second most profitable company in the world.[1]

Between 2000 and 2012 Apple’s profits on average grew 39.2% each year[2] (Apple SEC-Filings, 10-k form) (see Figure 11.1).

In 2012 Apple’s total net sales amounted to 156.51 billion usd. The largest share of it was derived from hardware, whereby the iPhone was Apple’s most successful product (see Figure 11.2).

In addition to its economic success Apple is also successful in building its reputation. Fortune Magazine, for six years in a row (2008–2013), has ranked Apple the most admired company in the world.[3] According to a survey among 47,000 people from 15 countries that was conducted by the consultancy firm Reputation Institute, Apple is the company with the 5th best Corporate Social Responsibility (csr) reputation worldwide (Reputation Institute 2012, 19).

This image does not correspond to the company’s actual business practices. The production of Apple’s hardware products, on which its economic success is built (see Figure 11.1), is largely outsourced to contract manufacturers in China. In May and June 2010 many major Western media reported about a

series of suicides at factory campuses in China. The factories, at which 17 young workers jumped to death between 2007 and May 2010[4] belong to the Taiwanbased company Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd, better known as Foxconn, which is a major supplier for computer giants such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Nokia (Finnwatch, sacom and somo 2011, 8).

Hon Hai Precision is a profitable company itself. According to Forbes Magazine it is the 113th biggest company in the world. In 2012 its profits amounted to 10.7 billion usd.[5] Nevertheless the company strongly depends on orders from consumer brands such as Apple. Finnwatch, sacom and somo describe this situation as follows: “These companies often drive down the price they pay their suppliers, which then makes the suppliers less or no longer profitable. To get back in the game, suppliers reduce costs, often at the cost of workers, violating labour laws in the process” (Finnwatch, sacom and somo 2009, 44).

Competition between contract manufacturers such as Foxconn is also high, which is why profit rates can often only be achieved by keeping cost low (somo 2005a, 41). Although some Foxconn factories are exclusively producing for Apple, such as for example three plants in Zhengzhou, Henan (sacom 2012, 3), Foxconn is not the only company that is manufacturing Apple products. Other Apple suppliers include Pegatron Corporation, Primax Electronics, Quanta Computers, Wintek or Foxlink.[6]

Working conditions are similar throughout these factories (sacom 2010, 2012, 2013). sacom argues that “illegal long working hours, low wages and poor occupational health and safety are rooted in the unethical purchasing practices of Apple” (sacom 2012, 1).

The losers in this corporate race for profit are the workers. When young

Foxconn workers decided to end their lives by jumping from their employer’s factory buildings, Western media for some weeks were looking behind the surface of bright and shiny computer products. For example, The New York Times published a story about the String of Suicides Continues at Electronics Supplier in China;[7] the bbc reported on Foxconn Suicides: ‘Workers Feel Quite Lonely’,[8]

Time Magazine published an article entitled Chinese Factory Under Scrutiny As Suicides Mount;[9] The Guardian headlined Latest Foxconn Suicide Raises Concern Over Factory Life in China,[10] and cnn reported Inside China Factory Hit By Suicides.[11]

However, these suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. For several years ngos have stressed that computers, mp3 players, game consoles, etc are often produced under miserable working conditions (ico, Finnwatch and eca 2005; somo 2005b, somo 2007a). Far away from shopping centres and department stores, workers in factories in Asia or Latin America produce consumer electronics devices during 10 to 12 hour shifts, a minimum of 6 days a week for at best a minimum wage.

Apple’s suppliers are no exception. In the next sections I develop a systematic account of working conditions (Section 3), which I will subsequently apply to the situation in the workshops of Apple’s contract manufactures in China (Section 4).

3 A Systematic Model of Working Conditions

A suitable starting point for a systematic model of different dimensions of

working conditions is the circuit of capital accumulation as it has been described by Karl Marx (1967/1990, 248–253; 1885/1992, 109). According to Marx, capital accumulation in a first stage requires the investment of capital in order to buy what is necessary for producing commodities, the productive forces: labour time of workers (L or variable capital) on the one hand, and working equipment like machines and raw materials (MoP or constant capital) on the other hand (Marx 1885/1992, 110). Thus, money (M) is used in order to buy labour power as well as machines and resources as commodities (C) that then in a second stage enter the labour process and produ

[1] Forbes Magazine. The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Retrieved from on April 24, 2013.

[2] Compound Annual Growth Rate cagr.

[3] Fortune. 2013. World’s Most Admired Companies. Retrieved from on April 24, 2013.

[4] Wired Magazine. 2011. 1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to blame? By Joel Johnson on Februar 28, 2011. Retrieved from on October 23, 2011.

[5] Forbes Magazine. The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Retrieved from on May 1, 2013.

[6]Apple. List of Suppliers. Retrieved from on May 1, 2013.

[7] The New York Times. 2010. String of Suicides Continues at Electronics Supplier in China. By David Barboza on May 25, 2010. Retrieved from on October 24, 2011.

[8] bbc. 2010. Foxconn Suicides: ‘Workers Feel Quite Lonely’. On May 28, 2010. Retrieved from on October 24, 2011.

[9]Time Magazine. 2010. Chinese Factory Under Scrutiny As Suicides Mount. On May 26, 2010. Retrieved from,8599,1991620,00.html on October 24, 2011.

[10] The Guardian. 2010. Latest Foxconn Suicide Raises Concern Over Factory Life in China. By Tania Branigan on May 17, 2010. Retrieved from on October 24, 2011.

[11] cnn. 2010. Inside China Factory Hit By Suicides. By John Vause on June 1, 2010. Retrieved from on October 24, 2011.

Thus, money (M) is used in order to buy labour power as well as machines and resources as commodities (C) that then in a second stage enter the labour process and produce (P) a new commodity (C’) (Marx 1885/1992, 118). This new commodity (C’) contains more value than the sum of its parts, i.e. surplus value. This surplus value needs to be realized and turned into more money (M’) by selling the commodity in the market (Marx 1885/1992, 125). The circuit of capital accumulation can thus be described with the following formula: M → C … P … C’→M’ (Marx 1885/1992, 110).

According to Marx, surplus value can only be generated due to the specific qualities of labour-power as a commodity. Marx argued that labour power is the only commodity “whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification of labour, hence a creation of value” (Marx 1867/1990, 270).

Labour is thus essential to the process of capital accumulation. The model I constructed thus takes this process as its point of departure for identifying different dimensions that shape working conditions (see Figure 11.2). The purpose of this model is to provide comprehensive guidelines that can be applied for systematically studying working conditions in different sectors.

The model pictured in Figure 11.3 identifies five areas that shape working conditions throughout the capital accumulation process: means of production, labour, relations of production, the production process and the outcome of production. Furthermore this model includes the state’s impact on working conditions through labour legislation:

• Productive Forces – Means of Production: Means of production include machines and equipment on the one hand and resources that are needed for production on the other hand. The question whether workers operate big machines, work at the assembly line, use mobile devices such as laptops, handle potentially hazardous substances, use high-tech equipment, traditional tools or no technology at all etc. shapes the experience of work and has a strong impact on work processes and working conditions.

• Productive Forces – Labour: The subjects of the labour process are workers themselves. One dimension that impacts work in a certain sector is the question how the workforce is composed in terms of gender, ethnic background, age, education levels etc. Another question concerns worker health and safety and how it is affected by the means of production, the relations of production, the labour process and labour law. Apart from outside impacts on the worker, an important factor is how workers themselves experience their working conditions.

Relations of Production: Within capitalist relations of production, capitalists buy labour power as a commodity. Thereby a relation between capital and labour is established. The purchase of labour power is expressed through wages. Wages are the primary means of subsistence for workers and the reason why they enter a wage labour relation. The level of wages thus is a central element of working conditions. Labour contracts specify the conditions under which capital and labour enter this relation, including working hours, wages, work roles and responsibilities etc.

The content of this contract is subject to negotiations and often struggles between capital and labour. The relation between capital and labour is thus established through a wage relation and formally enacted by a labour contract that is subject to negotiations and struggles. These three dimensions of the relation between capital and labour set the framework for the capitalist labour process.

• Production process: Assessing working conditions furthermore requires looking at the specifics of the actual production process. A first factor in this context is its spatial location. Whether it is attached to a certain place or is location independent, whether it takes place in a factory, an office building, or outdoors etc. are important questions.

A second factor relates to the temporal dimension of work. Relevant questions concern the amount of regular working hours and overtime, work rhythms, the flexibility or rigidness of working hours, the relation between work time and free time etc. Finally working conditions are essentially shaped by how the production process is executed. This includes on the one hand the question which types of work activity are performed. The activities can range from intellectual work, to physical work, to service work, from skilled to unskilled work, from creative work to monotonous and standardized work tasks, etc.

On the other hand another aspect of the production process is how it is controlled and managed. Different management styles can range from strict control of worker behaviour and the labour process to high degrees of autonomy, self-management or participatory management etc.

Space, time, activity and control are essential qualities of the production process and therefore need to be considered when studying working conditions.

• Product: Throughout the production process workers put their time, effort and energy into producing a certain product. This actual outcome of production and how it relates back to the worker thus needs to be considered for understanding work in a certain sector.

• The state: Finally the state has an impact on working conditions through enacting labour laws that regulate minimum wages, maximum working hours, social security, safety standards etc.

Table 11.1 summarizes the dimensions of working conditions that I describedabove.

Based on research that has been conducted by corporate watchdogs I will now take a closer look at all of the described dimensions in Apple’s manufacturing factories in China.

4 Working Conditions at Apple’s Contract Manufacturers in China

Corporate watchdogs such as Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (sacom), China Labour Watch and the organisations involved

in the European project makeITfair have collected comprehensive data about working conditions in Apple’s supply chain. sacom is a Hong-Kong based ngo that was founded in 2005. It brings together concerned labour rights activists, students, scholars and consumers in order to monitor working conditions throughout China and elsewhere.[1] sacom’s research is largely based on undercover investigations and anonymous interviews with workers, conducted outside of factory campuses. Its research results are documented in reports such as iSlave behind the iPhone (2011b) or New iPhone, Old Abuses (2012) that are made available online. China Labour Watch (clw) is another independent ngo that was founded in 2000. Since then it has collaborated with workers, unions, labour activists and the media in order to monitor working conditions in different industries in China. clw’s Shenzhen office works directly with local workers and factories, while clw’s New York based office produces investigation report and makes them available to an international audience.[2]

The project makeITfair,[3] funded by the European Union (2006–2012), focuses on working conditions and environmental impacts throughout the live-cycles consumer electronics such as computers, mobile phones, photo cameras or mp3 players. The research that was conducted within the project is based on anonymous interviews with workers outside factory buildings and sometimes also includes interviews with management officials.

Workers tend to be hesitant to answer questions about their working conditions as they depend on their jobs and are afraid of negative consequences, especially if the investigators are foreigners. Therefore the European project partners such Swedwatch, Germanwatch, somo, Finnwatch or Danwatch co-operate with local ngos and researchers who approach and interview workers without the knowledge of factory managers. MakeITfair informs the electronics brand companies such as Apple, Dell or hp of its research results and invites them to comment on the findings.

Based on its research makeITfair aims at raising awareness among consumers, activists and policy makers about the work and life reality of workers in the manufacturing of consumer electronics and to pressure electronics companies to improve working conditions in their supply chains.

I will in the following use data provided by these corporate watchdogs in order to shed light on the work reality of those who are manufacturing Apple’s products in China.

4.1 Productive Forces – Means of Production

According to Marx, means of production consist of tools and instruments on the one hand and raw materials on the other hand (Marx 1867/1990, 284f). The fact that in capitalism means of production are privately owned lays the foundation for exploitation and the domination of man by man: “modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonism, on the exploitation of the many by the few” (Marx and Engels 1848/2011, 18).

For the majority of people private ownership of means of production in fact means non-ownership. Being deprived from the necessary capital to buy means of production that are needed to engage in a production process, workers have to sell their labour power in order to earn their means of subsistence.

Private ownership of machines and equipment as well as resources is thus the starting point of the capitalist labour process. I will now consider which instruments (see Section 4.1.1) and resources (see Section 4.1.2) are needed for producing Apple’s products.

4.1.1 Machines and Equipment

Compared to other manufacturing sectors such as apparel or toys, electronics manufacturing is relatively capital intensive and requires high-tech equipment (Plank and Staritz 2013, 4; Lüthje 2006, 22). This is even more the case as computer products are becoming more sophisticated smaller in size and lower in weight (wtec 1997, 16).

However the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company classifies the final assembly of high-tech products as labour-intensive (McKinsey & Company 2012, 64). One reason for this is that the fragmentation of the production process allows to separate “labour-intensive and more capital- and knowledge-intensive parts” so that “there is a considerable amount of lowvalue and thus low-skill and low-wage activity, which is often combined with advanced production technologies in this ‘high-tech’ sector” (Plank and Staritz 2013, 9). Electronics manufacturing is thus characterized by both high-tech equipment and high demand for labour.

Electronics manufacturing is among those industries that account for the most robot purchases. According to McKinsey and Company “in 2010, automotive and electronics manufacturing each accounted for more than 30,000 robot units sold globally, while industries such as food and beverage, rubber and plastics, and metal products each bought only 4,000 to 6,000 new robots” (McKinsey & Company 2012, 88).

A technology that Apple’s contract manufacturers employ for the automated part of assembly is Surface Mount Technology (smt) (wtec 1997, 16; Lüthje 2012). smt uses programming to automatically solder electronics components such as chips or connectors onto circuit boards.[4]

Boy Lüthje argues that as labour costs in China are low not the entire potential of automation is realized, thus “the degree of automation in most factories in China and Asia is lower than it would be in Europe or the United States” (Lüthje 2012). This means that labour is sometimes cheaper than high-tech equipment. It also means that making use of the full range of available automation technology could eliminate parts of the repetitive and standardized work activities that are now part of electronics production.

4.1.2 Resources

Among the resources needed for the production of consumer electronics such as Apple’s Mac’s, iPads, iPhones and iPods are minerals such as tin, beryllium, gallium, platinum tantalum, indium, neodymium, tungsten, palladium, yttrium, gold, and cobalt (somo 2007b, 10–12, Friends of the Earth 2012, 7; ).

Often these minerals are sourced in conflict areas (somo 2007b, 13). The mining activities usually take place under extremely poor health and safety conditions, are extremely low paid, require the resettlement of local villages,threaten the environment and the livelihood of local communities (somo2007b; 2011; Swedwatch 2007; Finnwatch 2007).

Cobalt for example is mainly extracted in the so-called copperbelt in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (drc) (Swedwatch 2007, 7). It is needed for the production of rechargeable batteries for laptops, mobile phones etc as well as for speakers, headphones and the coatings of hard drives (Swedwatch 2007, 12). Swedwatch in an investigation of mining activities in the Katanga province in drc found that worker are risking their lives for an income of about 2–4 usd per day (Swedwatch 2007, 29,33).

Many of the miners are children:

An estimated number of 50,000 children between the age of 7 and 18 are working in the mines of Katanga and thus form a large part of the total workforce of 10,000–14,000 miners (Swedwatch 2007, 7).

The drc is rich on mineral resources but has been shaped by poverty as well as colonial violence, civil war and armed conflict. A report by Free the Slaves shows that in drc mines are often controlled by armed rebel groups that force local people into slavery (Free the Slaves 2011, 11). Many women and girls, who are often not allowed to work in the mines, are forced into sexual exploitation (Free the Slaves 2011, 17f).

It is difficult to determine where exactly and under which conditions the minerals contained in a product of a certain electronics brand were soured. However sometimes watchdogs successfully trace the supply chain of a brand back to the point of mineral extraction. In 2012 Friends of the Earth published a report that traces the tin used in Apple’s iPhones back to mines in Bangka, an island in Indonesia.

The report reveals that Foxconn and Samsung, which are Apple’s direct suppliers, buy their tin from the middle companies Shenmao, Chernan and PT Timah, which obtain their tin from Indonesia. 90% of Indonesian tin is mined at Bangka island (Friends of the Earth 2012, 21). The report shows how tin mining destroyed forests and farmlands, killed coral, seagrass and mangroves and led fish to disappear, contaminated drinking water (Friends of the Earth 2012, 13).

The destruction of the ecosystem deprives local farmers and fishermen of their livelihood, forcing them to become tin miners themselves (Friends of the Earth 2012, 15f). Tin mining at Bangka island is dangerous and security standards are low. Friends of the Earth reports that that in 2011 on average one miner per week was killed in an accident (Friends of the Earth 2012, 9).

Conflict minerals are used for producing electronics parts such as researchable batteries (cobalt), magnets (cobalt), speakers (cobalt), power amplifiers (gallium), camera flashes (gallium), high efficiency transistors (Indium), flat screens (indium, platinum), lead frames (palladium), plating connectors (palladium), chip resistors (ruthenium), capacitors (neodymium, lanthanum, tantalum) or circuit boards (tin) (Finnwatch 2007, 9f).

Long before minerals enter the final assembly process of consumer electronics, they have passed through a process framed by destruction and exploitation.

It is important to recognize this history of the components that are assembled in Apple’s manufacturing factories. Threats to workers and the environment connected to these minerals however continue: Due to the toxic qualities of many minerals they can potentially harm workers in electronics manufacturing.

Furthermore the fact that toxic minerals are contained in electronics products can cause problems at the point of disposal. Toxic electronic waste often ends up in waste dumps in the global South where it contaminates the environment and threatens the health of waste worker (Danwatch 2011).

4.2 Productive Forces – Labour

Focussing on the subjective side of the labour process, at workers themselves, shows that work on Apple’s manufacturing sites is often performed by young female migrant workers (see Section 4.2.1), who are exposed to serious health hazards (see Section 4.2.2) and experience their daily work life as alienating and exhausting (see Section 4.2.3).

4.2.1 Workforce Characteristics

The majority of production workers in China are young female migrant workers (Bread for All 2007, 6; FinnWatch, sacom and somo 2009, 17). Estimates show that in the Chinese Guangdong province, for example, migrant workers make up 65 percent of the workforce in the manufacturing sector (Finnwatch, sacom and somo 2009, 17).

Migrant workers are a particularly vulnerable group of workers. Far away from their hometown they lack social contacts and are therefore prone to isolation.

Migrant workers also receive less social benefits. According to the fla investigation migrant workers at Shenzhen – which constitute 99% of the total workforce – are not covered by unemployment and maternity insurance systems because they do not have a Shenzhen residence card (fla 2012, 9).

Even if migrant workers have unemployment insurance they often cannot claim benefits in their hometown due to lacking transfer agreements between provinces (fla 2012, 9). Chinese laws prevent migrant workers to officially become urban citizens who are entitled to education and medical care in the city. They remain always dependent on their social networks in their hometowns especially in times of unemployment, illness or pregnancy. This situation keeps many workers trapped as permanent migrants (Friedman and Lee 2010, 516).

Many workers in the electronics industry are young women, who leave their families on the countryside to find work in an industrial area and provide some financial assistance for their relatives. Often factories prefer to hire female workers because they are considered to be good at performing detail-oriented work and to be more obedient and less likely to engage in protests (Swedwatch, sacom and somo 2008, 11).

Workers often have no other choice than to find employment in a factory in order to be able to earn enough money to support themselves and their families.

This dependency increases the power of companies over workers. The lack of alternatives makes it likely that workers feel forced to accept bad working conditions.

4.2.2 Mental and Physical Health

Threats to health and safety in electronics factories result from the usage of hazardous substances, insufficient information of workers about the substances they are using, a lack of protection equipment and unsafe work routines.

During the last couple of years a number of serious incidents occurred at Apple’s supplier factories.

For example between July 2009 and early 2010, 47 workers at United Win, a subsidy of Wintek Corporation that produces Apple products, were hospitalized because of being poisoned with n-hexane (sacom 2010, 2). If inhaled, n-hexane can cause nerve damage and paralysis of arms and legs. The poisoned workers were using n-hexane for cleaning iPhone touch screens (sacom 2010, 2). When the first poisoning occurred workers organized a strike. As a result United Win organized health examinations. However, no poisoning was diagnosed during these examinations. The affected workers therefore went to a hospital outside the factory, in which the poisoning was finally diagnosed (sacom 2010, 2).

Similar health hazards were also found at Futaihua Precision Electronics, a Foxconn subsidiary in Zhengzhou, where around 52,500 workers are producing 100,000 iPhones per day. Workers were exposed to chemicals such as n-hexane without adequate protection equipment. Some workers suffered from allergies (sacom 2011b, 7).

In 2011 sacom monitored Foxconn’s Chengdu factory that produces exclusively for Apple. The investigation revealed an alarming occupational health and safety situation. sacom found poor ventilation, insufficient protection equipment and noisy workplaces. Workers were using chemicals, without knowing whether they were harmful. At the milling and the polishing department – in which the iPads’s aluminium cover is polished until it is untarnished and shiny – workers were constantly breathing in aluminium dust. Several workers were suffering from a skin allergy after working with glue like substances without wearing gloves (sacom 2011a, 14). Shortly after sacom’s report was published, aluminium dust triggered an explosion at the polishing department at Chengdu that killed 3 workers and left 15 injured (sacom 2011b, 1; Friends of Nature, ipe, Green Beagle 2011, 36).

The Chengdu campus, which consists of eight factory buildings, was built in only 76 days in order to meet growing demand from Apple. Furthermore workers were insufficiently trained and not aware of the dangers connected to aluminium dust (Friends of Nature, ipe, Green Beagle 2011, 37f).

A similar incident occurred at the iPhone polishing department at a Pegatron factory in Shanghai in December 2011. 61 workers were injured (sacom 2013, 8). sacom furthermore reports that weak ventilations system at Pegatron’s polishing department creates high levels of dust that cover worker’s faces and penetrate their masks entering their noses and mouths (sacom 2013, 8).

Working conditions at electronics manufacturing factories are not only threatening workers’ physical health but also creating psychological problems. Social life at Foxconn is deprived. Workers do not have time for any free time activities. Their life consists of working, eating and sleeping. Often they do not even find enough time to sleep. When asked what they would like to do on holiday most interviewees said that they would like to sleep (sacom 2011a, 12).

Workers lack social contacts. sacom’s research shows that workers were not allowed to talk during work. They live in rooms with workers from different shifts, which they therefore hardly ever meet (sacom 2011a, 12f, FinnWatch, sacom and somo 2011, 30).

Work and life at factory campuses have severe impacts on the bodies and minds of workers. The example of Apple’s supplier factories in China illustrates that for many workers selling their labour power also means selling their mental and physical health.

4.2.3 Work Experiences

During the past five years corporate watchdogs have interviewed numerous workers at Apple’s supplier factories. These interviews reveal that workers experience their work as exhausting and alienating. They feel stressed and under pressure in order to achieve production targets (FinnWatch, sacom and somo 2011, 30) as well as exhausted due to extremely long working hours, long hours of standing, and stress during meal breaks (sacom 2011a, 15).

One worker told sacom that workers they feel that Apple’s demand dictates their entire lives. Workers are torn between the need to increase their salary by working overtime and the need to rest:

The daily production target is 6,400 pieces. I am worn out every day. I fall asleep immediately after returning to the dormitory. The demand from Apple determines our lives. On one hand, I hope I can have a higher wage.

On the other hand, I cannot keep working everyday without a day-off. Foxconn worker quoted in sacom 2012, 5f

Workers furthermore experience their work environment as unsafe and unpleasant.

They are worried about their health due to a lack of protection equipment: In my department, the working conditions are unbearable. I’m a machine operator, producing the silver frame for the iPhone. We have to put some oil into the machines in the production. I don’t know what kind of substance it is and the smell is irritating. The frontline management confided to us that we should not stay in the department for over a year because the oil could cause problems to our lungs. Although the shop floor has air conditioning, it is very hot and the ventilation is poor. For me, the installation of the air-conditioners is just a tactic to avoid paying high temperature subsidy to the workers. Worker quoted in sacom 2011b, 9

Furthermore workers describe the way they are controlled and managed as humiliating and exhausting:

We have to queue up all the time. Queuing up for bus, toilet, card-punching, food, etc. During recess, we don’t have a place to sit. We can only sit on the floor. We get up in early morning and can only return to the dorm in late evening. I am really worn out. Worker quoted in sacom 2011a, 15

Workers are aware of the alienating character of their work situation, which expressed by the fact that they are not able to own the products that they are themselves producing every day: One worker told sacom: Though we produce for iPhone, I haven’ t got a chance to use iPhone. I believe it is fascinating and has lots of function. However, I don’t think I can own one by myself. Worker quoted in sacom 2011a, 19

These descriptions show that workers find themselves in a state of exhaustion and alienation. Karl Marx in 1844 in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts described the alienation of worker as his/her labour becoming an external object that “exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him” (Marx 1844/2007, 70).

The more life the workers puts into his/her product, the more alienated s/he becomes: “The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. […] The greater this product, the less is he himself” (Marx 1844/2007, 70).

Workers in Apple’s manufacturing factories have put their labour power into these products while producing them. Many workers left their families, gave up their free time and their health for producing products, which they will never be able to own. The finished products, although containing the workers’ energy and labour, suddenly turn out of their reach. Workers are inside Apple’s products, but at the same time insurmountably separated from them.

4.3 Relations of Production

The relation between capital and labour needs to be understood as a relation of domination. In capitalism the only commodity workers possess is their labour

power. In order to make a living they thus have no other choice but to sell it by entering into a wage labour relationship (Marx 1867/1990, 272). Research conducted by corporate watchdogs shows that the relation between capital and labour in Apple’s supplier factories in China is largely based on precarious labour contracts (see Section 4.3.1), characterized by low wages (see Section 4.3.2) and occasionally contested through labour struggles (see Section 4.3.3).

4.3.1 Labour Contracts

Labour contracts that offer weak protection for workers are an expression of the unequal power relation between employers and workers. In 2004 the Institute for Contemporary Observation (ico), FinnWatch and the Finnish Export Credit Agency (eca) investigated the Shenzhen Foxconn campus. They found that workers could be dismissed anytime. If dismissed, employees had to leave immediately without any financial compensation. If a worker decided to quit and to leave immediately s/he would not receive her/his outstanding wage (ico, Finnwatch and eca 2005, 17).

Watchdogs found instances where workers in Apple supplier factories did not receive any contract at all (ico, Finnwatch and eca 2005, 17, Swedwatch, sacom and somo 2008, 42; Bread for All and sacom 2008, 19). Without a signed contract workers are deprived of the possibility of taking legal steps in the case of labour law violations.

The majority of labour contracts in Apple’s supplier factories are precarious. Short-term contracts allow supplier companies to remain flexible and to quickly respond to fluctuations of Apple’s demand. Another measure Foxconn uses in order to cover sudden increases of labour demand is to recruit workers from labour agencies, or to relocate workers from other cities and provinces to another factory that has a heightened demand for workers (sacom 2012, 8).

So-called dispatch or agency workers are hired by labour agencies rather than being employed directly by the contract manufacturer. According to sacom around 80% of the total workforce of the Apple supplier factories Foxlink in Guangdong, Pegatron in Shanghai and Wintek in Jiangsu are agency workers (sacom 2013, 4). Often social insurance schemes do not cover agency workers (sacom 2013, 4).

New workers often have a probationary period between three and six months during which their wages are lower than those of permanent workers. For example, the wage increases Foxconn implemented after the suicide tragedies were only granted to workers that had been working in the facility for more than six months (Finnwatch, sacom, somo 2011, 28).

Another common practice among Apple’s contract manufacturers is the employment of student interns. Especially during peak season students are hired in order to cover the sudden labour demand (sacom 2012, 6). Students are cheaper to employ since they do not receive regular social security benefits and are not covered by labour law. They however have to work night shifts and overtime like regular workers.

Student workers complain that the work they have to perform in Apple supplier factories is unskilled labour that is unrelated to the subject of their studies. Although students officially are not allowed to work more than eight hours per day, they are treated like regular workers and have to work overtime as well as night shifts (sacom 2011a, 18). They also feel forced to work at these factories, as they are afraid that they will not be able to graduate if they refuse to complete the internship (sacom 2013, 6).

Su argues that the internship programs led to the commodification of both student’s labour and education (Su 2011, 342). Internship programmes allow factories such as Foxconn to exploit student labour for a profit. In return for sending students to factories technical schools receive equipment and funding (Su 2011, 350).

Finnwatch, sacom and somo found that large numbers of 16-to 18-year old students were employed in Foxconn factories for periods between four and six months (Finnwatch, sacom and somo 2009, 36; Finnwatch, sacom an somo 2011, 5 see also Su 2011, 345). sacom quotes reports form Chinese media according to which in 2010 100,000 vocational school students from Henan province were sent to work at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen to complete a 3-month internship (sacom 2011b, 3). An investigation by the Fair Labour Association (fla), that Apple had requested, confirmed that Foxconn did not comply with the standards regarding maximum working hours for student interns. Like regular workers, students had to work overtime and nights shifts (fla 2012, 10).

Short-term precarious contracts and weak protection against dismissal increase factory management’s power over workers. It makes workers vulnerable and serves as a means for controlling their behaviour by threat of dismissal.

Because workers need to fear loosing their jobs they are more likely to agree to higher production targets or increased overtime. Precarious contracts make long-term life planning difficult. Short notice periods leave workers hardly any time to rearrange their lives after a dismissal. Furthermore different types of contracts create divides between workers with fixed contracts, short term contracts, agency contracts or internship contracts. The fact that different types of contracts confront workers with different kinds of problems makes it more difficult to formulate collective demands.

4.3.2 Wages and Benefits

Among the most pressing problems that occur throughout Apple’s supplier factories is the low wage level. Already in 2007 the Dutch non-profit research centre somo (2007a) interviewed workers at five Apple supplier factories in China, the Philippines and Thailand: Workers in all investigated factories reported that their wages were too low to cover their living expenses. Wages at the Chinese factory of Volex Cable Assembly Co. Ltd. were found to be below the legal minimum (somo 2007a, 21).

However, even if wages comply with minimum wage regulations they are often hardly enough to cover basic living expenses. In 2008 for example FinnWatch, sacom and somo monitored buildings C03 and C04 of Foxconn’s Shenzhen campus, in which 2,800 workers at 40 assembly lines are producing black and white models of the iPhone 8G and 16G (FinnWatch, sacom and somo 2009, 35). Wages corresponded to the legal minimum wage of around 980 yuan, which however is not an adequate living wage (FinnWatch, sacom and somo 2009, 36, 44).

A living wage should cover expenses for food, housing, clothes, education, social security and health care for a family, and allow for some savings.[5]

After the suicide tragedies, Foxconn announced significant wage raises.[6] FinnWatch, sacom and somo in 2010 did a follow up study at Apple’s production line at Foxconn’s Shenzhen campus in order to investigate how the promised wage raises were implemented…(falta segunda parte)

[1] sacom. About Us. Retrieved from on July 22, 2013.

[2] China Labour Watch. Who We Are. Retrieved from aboutus.html July 22, 2013.


[4] Surface Mount Technology Association. Glossary of Acronyms Relevant to Electronics Manufacturing. Retrieved from on May 18, 2013.

[5] The Asia Floor Wage Campaign (2009) suggested a method for calculating the living wage. According to this calculation a living wage needs to cover the costs for food, equivalent of 3000 calories per adult family member multiplied by two, in order to cover also other basic need such as clothing, housing, education, It is thus calculated as follows: price for food worth 3000 calories x 3 x 2 but healthcare, and savings. The living wage should provide for a family of two adults and two children. It thus should cover the cost for food worth 3000 (Asia Floor Wage Campaign 2009, 50). A worker should be able to earn a living wage within a working week of a maximum of 48 hours. This calculation of a living wage was developed with specific regard to the garment sector, calories for three consumption units (two adults and two children) multiplied by two. is also applicable for other sectors such as electronics manufacturing.

[6] Reuters 2010. Foxconn to Raise Wages Again at China Plant. Retrieved from on April 28, 2013. 

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