Dying for an iPhone: Questions raised by the Foxconn suicide

If you've got your cell phone or smart phone handy, I'd like to ask you to pull it out of your pocket or off your desk and give it a long, hard look.

By any definition, it's a pretty impressive piece of technology. You can call anywhere in the world, surf the Web, IM your parents, and even orchestrate meetings with far-flung team members you'd rather not meet in person. When you're done working, toss a stereo Bluetooth headset on and take in a movie without the hassle of overpriced theatre popcorn or whining kids kicking the back of your seat.

Modern day slavery?

By any definition, what we can do in the palm of our hand is nothing short of mind-blowingly magical. But how would you feel if you knew someone had died in the process of bringing this modern marvel to you? If you knew the modern-day equivalent of slavery was being used to produce your slickly capable wonderphone, would you be as likely to pull it out at the next party and demo it to your friends?

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Of course not. Not consciously, anyway. And no one's saying slavery is prevalent within the global supply chain that keeps a flow of increasingly capable technologies flowing into our hot little hands. But the recent suicide of a worker for Apple subcontractor Foxconn raises questions about the unseen pressures that boil below the surface of the glitzy display at your local electronics store, and the role we play in keeping that pressure on.

Some background: Sun Danyong, 25, worked for Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics company that manufactures the iPhone for Apple. The company, corporately known as Hon Hai, is one of the world's largest electronics and components manufacturers. Sun, who lived in Shenzhen, China and worked at the factory there, had been responsible for 16 prototypes of the upcoming fourth-generation iPhone. As you can well imagine, any leaks related to this super-secret device could be hugely damaging to Apple.

Unfortunately for Sun, one of the prototypes went missing. After Foxconn's Central Security Division allegedly detained him for questioning, then abused him in the process, he jumped to his death from his 12th floor apartment window a week ago today.

To its credit, Apple has been up front in its response. Its statement leaves little doubt about where the company stands:

Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.

Apple says it's currently investigating working conditions at Foxconn's plant to ensure compliance with its supplier code of conduct. And Foxconn itself has apologized to Sun's family, suspended a security official, and spearheaded a police investigation.

That's all well and good, but Apple's been down this road before. In 2006, Apple investigated claims of employee mistreatment at Foxconn, and concluded the company was largely compliant with its employee treatment practices. Although Apple found evidence of some minor violations, including excessive hours of work and the occasional denied vacation day, these were deemed minor enough for Apple to keep Foxconn as a key supplier. Three years later, obviously not a whole lot has changed. Apple's code of conduct states that suppliers "must uphold the human rights of workers, to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community." I'm wondering if excessive interrogation qualities as dignified.

Demanding companies. Demanding consumers.

As upsetting as all this is, it begs the question why companies are so sensitive about stray prototypes in the first place. I lose stuff all the time. Usually, it ends up being little more than an annoyance to me and a reason for my wife to jokingly needle me for my absent-mindedness. I get that a next-generation iPhone prototype is worth a lot more to the world than my beat up BlackBerry. But how much more? And why?

First answer: Lots more. Second answer: Because we demand it. We are so addicted to having the latest and greatest thing in our hands as soon as it is humanly possible that we're willing to ignore what it takes for companies like Apple and Foxconn to deliver the goods. While the moral thing for Apple to do would be to find another supplier that truly respects its workers' dignity and human rights, that would likely mean major delays in bringing new iPhones -- and iMacs and AirPorts and iPods, etc. -- to market. As the Cupertino company weighs its options, backing away from its role of providing fashion forward consumer products to an adoring public probably isn't among them.

Sadly, we'll forget about Sun Danyong's death in a blink without ever having had the chance to learn about the kind of work environment that drove him to his unthinkable end. And by this time next year, the final versions of the product he seemingly lost track of will land in Apple Stores across the land. Consumers, blind to the supply chain machinations that make such achievements possible, will once again hand over their money and thank their lucky stars that home-grown American companies can deliver such iconic American products like the iPhone.

But we live in a global world where Fords are built in Mexico, Chevys come from Korea, and Toyota Camrys built in Kentucky and Indiana are judged to have the most American content of all. There's no going back to the quaint old notion of local manufacturers using local suppliers whose kids played baseball with your kids. These days, workers halfway around the world work for companies that don't always follow the same workplace standards we do. These companies also operate within societies that don't always define human rights in ways that would make sense to us. And as long as we push consumer products companies to bring ever more capable products to market at an ever accelerating pace, stories like Sun Danyong's will continue to happen.

I'd like to suggest never buying anything from a company whose suppliers aren't completely above-board in treating employees with absolute respect. But then we'd never buy anything again, which leaves us with an invisible problem tied to an impossible solution.

Suddenly, that wonder-device in my pocket doesn't seem so wonderful after all.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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