So many things are made in China: DVD players, handbags, adorable shoes, kitchen gadgets, watches, t-shirts, laptops, and more. Some of them are made in happy, shiny factories. Some are born out of deplorable labour conditions that ruin and cost lives. We usually don't know which.
But it's different with Apple and its widely publicised manufacturing process: From Cupertino, we hear about the meticulous process created to make your perfect iPhone and iPad mini. From China, we hear about how that process involves child labourers, impossible expectations, and brutal management. And we accept it. We didn't used to put up with Chinese labour violations—so why now? When did owning the best phone become worth letting people get hurt?
Decades ago—decades which feel particularly stretched from today—concerns over the Chinese labour behind beloved American brands lead to investigations, outrage, boycotts, and, most importantly, reform. Nike shoes and Gap jeans flirted with grim stigma: They were tainted goods. An increasing number of Americans, armed with voting dollars and a vague sense of globalised ethics, didn't feel comfortable wearing sweatshop apparel. They didn't want to buy things that were made by children who lost fingers or women on half-day shifts in cramped sewing machine bunkers. Because dollars spent that way justified the process. When you wittingly buy something that creates bad for people anywhere in the world, you're in on it—that's simple enough. Their loss is your Game Boy.
We threatened to stop buying these things, or at least turn our nose up at them enough that the companies in question actually changed. In 1998, the New York Times reported on Nike's Chinese atonement:
The campaign against sweatshops has gained momentum in the West in the last few years. Last month, for example, Nike Inc. bowed to pressure and agreed to far-reaching changes in labor practices at factories that churn out its shoes. Nike said it would raise the minimum age for new workers to 16, admit outsiders to inspect the factories, and improve air filtration to meet United States factory standards.
And then Apple started making something more glorious and wallet-penetrating than Jordans, a manic status object which made Apple the largest company in the history of capitalism. The latest iPhone—the best phone ever made—is also "the most difficult device...ever assembled," according to Foxconn executive who spoke to the Wall Street Journal. But, he added ominously, "Practice makes perfect." Good thing, because perfection is what we expect after a year of aching anticipation, media hype, and general silicon lust.
But in this case, practice meant pushing an already overworked, underpaid, underaged staff beyond the breaking point. According to China Labour Watch, fights broke out between employees, and workers went on strike on the iPhone 5 lines. Foxconn varyingly denied and downplayed the strike. Naturally. No workplace will ever admit its practices are causing workers to punch each other because they can't cope with work.
Paying into this system with a trip to the Apple store ought to be more than distasteful—we need to look hard at ourselves, our pockets, and Chinese strangers and think whether funding exploitation is fundamentally wrong. The reflection will only become more and more pressing: This week, the iPad mini joins the iPhone 5 as potential tumult kindling, using an almost identically perfectionist manufacturing process, and held to Jonny Ive's crazed standards. "With tolerances measured in microns," the iPad mini's design page reads, "mono-crystalline diamond-cut edges, and sleek metallic finishes, iPad mini was designed and engineered to incredibly high standards." It's hard to say what this industrial gobbledygook means, other than the fact that it's really, really complicated to make.
And after we've all appreciated such an amazing physical object, there's no going back—not for us, not for China. Absolute perfection is the new standard, and once that standard becomes a marketing boon and engine for making a tremendous amount of money, Apple would be out of its corporate mind to retreat. We're locked into this now, already taking perfection as a given.
Foxconn's scoffs and denials notwithstanding, our consumer role in the harming of Chinese labourers is clear. The iPhone 5 is dizzyingly engineered, and requires equally dizzying manufacturing processes—something Apple actually created an HD video bragging about. The minute complexity of the thing is a selling point, not a liability. If it didn't require such masterful construction, it wouldn't be an iPhone. And if it weren't an iPhone, our Western gullets wouldn't be foaming for it at the expensive of Eastern lives. The construction is masterful. The iPad mini, which enjoys the same industrial perfection as the new iPhone, may very well subject those who build it to the same rigours. We don't know for sure yet, but there's no reason to assume making a sophisticated, small tablet is going to be any kind of break for the workers. Either way, we already love the Mini for its industrial neatness, as we have and always will with the iPhone 5 and beyond. Who's going to ever stop loving chamfers?
But no matter how clean the lines and matte the metal, we still complain.
It scratches! It's making some kind of strange barely-audible rattling noise! It's taking too long to ship!
So the labour machine runs faster. Workers are asked to do more with the same bodies and same training, as if industriousness were as simple as turning a knob. It's unfair, and it's funded by us.
A causal chain here is short, neat, and cruel: we moan about the most infinitesimal of possible flaws with the wonder phone, hold up fists of money for it, and gripe for it to arrive. Apple tells Foxconn to run a tighter ship, and an already tight ship is squeezed to a breaking point. Foxconn pushes its workers to work harder and faster to satiate American detail lust. Workers who are already working inordinately hard and fast, for very little money, and most likely, because working this aching onerous factory job is a little better than subsistance farming in a remote Chinese village. Remember: Some places in China are worse will never be a sound argument for Foxconn—cleaning septic tanks with a brush is better than with your tongue, but neither are good. And so there they are, a seemingly inexhaustible pool of hundreds of thousands of workers who want something better than bad, and can be replaced at any time, for any reason, because people literally line up outside Foxconn for a brutal, monotonous place on the assembly line. These expendable workers are shoved harder and harder because we, indirectly, ask them to be. We demand the production, which worsens the production.
And nobody can claim ignorance.
Foxconn scandals make regular headlines. It's possible your PS3 is built with this same kind of forced-march, pressure-cooker mentality. It's possible your HTC tablet is made illegally by underage, underpaid kids. It's possible almost every major gadget company has just as much sweat on its hands as Apple—and if we knew they did, they'd deserve all the same scrutiny and scorn. But we don't know.
That's the entire world of difference—we do know how bad it is on the iPhone assembly lines, and we keep feeding them pounds. When you spend hundreds on your Apple handset, you slide that credit card with knowledge of where and how it came to be. You know about the suicides, the strikes, the fights, the cramped dorms, the on-site therapy, and the explosions. When you trade your money for a phone that comes from one of these places, you're guaranteeing that more phones will be built just like that. You're saying, at the very least, That's bad, but not as bad as me not having this phone.
We'd never say that about a shirt or a shoe or a blood diamond, which shows just how much tremendous cultural power Apple has. Cachet that kills. Apple now sells things good enough to displace the commonsense ethical judgments we'd normally make—China has always been far away from us as shoppers, but it's never been so far out of reach that bad labor always escapes reform. The iPhone, it would seem, has reached that distance. Conscious or not, I made the choice of super-phone over other humans when I went to the AT&T store last month. Sometimes I wish I hadn't, but it's too late: I'm complicit in whatever bad is happening in Shenzhen. But with no reason to believe things are getting any cheerier at Foxconn, I have to ask myself if it'll be the last time. Or, at the very least, wonder when we started caring more about cool new gadgets and less about the suffering of other people.
Photos: Ryan Williams/Getty Kin Cheung/AP Emile Wamsteker/AP