There is something eerie about walking around the Foxconn Electronic Manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China. Despite its bustling atmosphere, college style dorms, large café and appearance of a thriving community, it can’t easily hide the reason it became infamous. It doesn’t take but a second to notice that each 5 or 6-story, concrete building is covered completely by netting- designed and hung specifically to keep the workers inside, safe and sound.
Foxconn is the largest private employer in China and produces over 40 percent of the total $150 billion consumer electronics industry. It manufactures many of today’s recognizable electronic brands such as iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, Kindles, PlayStations, and many more. Before 2007, most Americans hadn’t even heard of Foxconn, despite the sheer size and numerous locations worldwide.
However, after 9 of its employees committed suicide within 3 months’ time at the Shenzhen location, (all of them jumping from the company’s buildings) and 8 more suicides that year, Foxconn found themselves in the spotlight. After hitting the 17th death mark and being unsuccessful in discouraging the employees from killing themselves, Foxconn hung netting all around the areas where workers could jump. It’s this netting that surrounds the massive buildings, eerily flapping in the breeze that should serve as a warning to its potential employees and give global consumers pause.
When Americans think of Asian worker factories, they typically think of half-dressed, undernourished children, working until they can’t stand anymore. And although these “sweat-shops” do exist, Terry Gou, Foxconn’s founder, set out to try to do things differently. Instead of forcing workers to sleep on the line, like many factories in China do; he set up what looks like college dormitories, providing a safe space for its employees to sleep (albeit 8 people have to share one small room).
He made sure to provide counseling facilities, lounges complete with Foxconn TV network and video games to play and even built the largest kitchen in China, called CyberFox Café. However, China has different worker laws than we do in America, so after swearing that no workman’s time and wage laws were broken, employees still put in over 12 hour days for 13 days straight before getting any kind of relief. What’s even more concerning, is that the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen is considered one of the best places to work in the country, despite their problems with employee retention and mental health.
Because of these reports (dating back to 2006), Apple performed an “in-depth” audit and has continued to do so every year since. They have stated that although workers are working over 60-hour work weeks, they have “found no instances of forced-overtime”. Seeing these numbers and conditions in the headlines, as well as reading about the individuals who have devoted their health and lives before jumping off a ledge, should push us as electronic owners, to question our destructiveness in these individual’s lives.
The simple fact of the matter is that every electronic device we use, every book or magazine we read, or every gadget we acquire, has a cost. And I’m not just talking about your budget, but the cost of materials that are irreplaceable, being taken from the ground or from trees on our planet. Even more dramatic is the cost of lives from the workers who slave for hours on end to make these electronics for us, despite their lack of family time and health.
It is my opinion that we as consumers, need to be more aware of the companies that we invest our money into. Instead of huge companies that string up nets to prevent their employees from killing themselves, we should be looking at family run businesses closer to home. As an owner of both an iPhone as well as a Macbook, I have to own up to the fact that my desires to own these devices have played at the very least, a small part in another human being a world apart, to step off a ledge into emptiness.
We need to take a serious look at our electronic usage and ask ourselves, “Do we really need to lavishly consume this much energy, simply for our own comfort”? If we look at how much our lifestyle actually costs the planet, and then multiply it by 7 million, we have a serious issue of greed and destruction on our hands. This overuse of electronics and self-indulgent attitude from people (who might not even use the device, but simply wants to own it) has caused a need for a solution to be invented.
Businesses have popped up who make it their purpose to try and help our planet out, by purchasing these old, broken and unused devices in order to recycle them. These companies are not only providing a safer environment by reducing hazardous waste but help the consumer’s budget by paying them cash for their broken and old devices. A simple Google search will bring up a list of these companies, some large names such as BestBuy Buyback, Target, and eBay; however, I recommend that in order to actually reduce the demand for a cheap workforce, go one step further.
Find companies such as iGotOffer, or any number of family-run and local places, that support and treat their employees and customers like their own. Get rid of those devices that are just collecting dust, and truly ask yourself if the next device you want to purchase is worth someone else’s life. Until our greed can be completely snuffed out, we will continue to see headlines of suicides by overworked people, who gave up on being able to keep up with our electronic desires.
I challenge us, as a people, to try and do our part to eliminate electronic waste and cut back on our “gadget gluttony” – because in doing so, we will see the necessity for nets around buildings to go away as well.