In the U.S.’s Silicon Valley or South Korea’s Pangyo Techno Valley, working in tech is often a lucrative job. Writing code and designing new products can yield a sizeable paycheck, stable employment and company perks like free meals.
But not everybody in the technology supply chain is so fortunate. For workers in manufacturing — who build iPhones, smart watches and other hardware, at factories in China, Malaysia, Brazil and other countries — jobs can be grueling and inhumane.
Li Qiang is the executive director of China Labor Watch (CLW), a New York City-based organization whose goal is to improve working conditions for Chinese workers. The nonprofit carries out undercover factory investigations in China, documents poor conditions and pressures companies to improve. Over 19 years, CLW has investigated factories that produce hardware for Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Samsung, Huawei and other major companies.
CLW has uncovered child labor, discrimination, mandatory overtime rules, and human rights violations. Recent reports include “Amazon Profits from Secretly Oppressing its Supplier’s Workers” (June 2018) and “Apple’s Failed CSR Audit” (January 2018).
Amazon responded to CLW’s findings by telling press they had “immediately requested a corrective action plan from Foxconn,” the company running the factory that produces Amazon Echo and Kindle. Apple told reporters it investigated the CLW claims, but “found no standards breached.”
“What these companies are looking for are cheaper production costs,” Li Qiang explains. “They don’t actually put a lot of care into the working conditions.”
Factory workers in China frequently do not earn a living wage. They may make the region’s legal minimum wage, but Li Qiang says that is still not enough to sustain them. As a result, overtime becomes necessary, and 60-hour weeks — or longer — become the norm.
Further, many workers don’t receive proper safety training. “Workers come into contact with toxic chemicals and do not even know about it,” Li Qiang says.
Who is to blame for these poor conditions? Li Qiang says there is a lot of finger pointing: “Companies like Apple and Dell push responsibility for these terrible working conditions onto factories,” he explains. “And the factories push the responsibility onto the agencies that hire the workers.”
Poor working conditions in Chinese factories are hardly a secret. In 2010, a rash of suicides at the Foxconn Technology factories in Shenzhen dominated news headlines. In 2015, WIRED published an exposé that followed a teenager in Dongguan who worked 15-hour days in a factory, used a toxic chemical to clean phone screens, and watched her colleagues grow sick.
Li Qiang acknowledges that working conditions have improved in the last 20 years. Among the achievements is that tech companies now address some problems: Apple issues progress reports on the labor and human rights law compliance of suppliers. Dell’s corporate social responsibility work includes initiatives to improve work standards in the supply chain.
But wages are still far too low, Li Qiang says. And too few organizations monitor companies and advocate for change. Among allies of CLW, are around 100 organizations that belong to the GoodElectronics network. It’s a nonprofit coalition in The Netherlands that rallies unions, researchers and academics to defend human rights and environmental sustainability in the global electronics supply chain. Traditional labor organizations also research and advise on best corporate practices, including the International Labor Organization of the United Nations.
The health of the internet includes humane working conditions for the people who build the phones, computers and other devices we depend on for connectivity. Cheap consumer technology can come at a high cost — for someone else. With more transparency and accountability from companies, and stronger protections for worker’s rights and safety, we could feel better assured about what degree of respect technology companies hold for humanity. As we invite more tech products into our lives, that’s something that ultimately affects us all.