Updates to this story
Apple has announced that it is going to launch an independent investigation into supplier Hon Hai, trade name Foxconn, which is lately all over the technology press after a spate of suicides at its Shenzhen plant.
It took only ten successful suicides this year for Apple to launch an investigation into its supplier. That said, the investigation is welcome news, as it is the first public acknowledgment of the suicides by any of Foxconn's clients. Apple said in a statement that it is "saddened and upset" by the suicides at the Foxconn plants. It went on to say that it is in direct contact with Foxconn senior management, and that Apple reckons Foxconn is taking the situation "very seriously".
Perhaps, though, Apple and other Hon Hai clients should take a chance to re-examine their business models. The Shenzhen facility has over 300,000 employees and is essentially a city to work in - there are reports that workers, who get paid a pittance, share crowded dormitories and rarely know each other's names. They are forced to take long working hours, standing all day, with no conversation or music, in identical uniforms. Breaks are taken from salaries.
The chairman of Foxconn, Terry Gou, said he has plans to build safety nets outside work dormitories in Shenzhen to stop depressed employees from leaping to their deaths. He may be missing the point - if you're serious about suicide you need little more than a locked room and a plastic bag - we doubt that the workers feel compelled to jump, it's simply a quick and impulsive-friendly way to snuff it.
Terry said in a statement: "I believe we are definitely not a sweatshop. It is very difficult to manage a manufacturing team of more than 800,000 people. There are many things to do every day." Poor old Mr. Gou, it must be very hard.
Hewlett Packard and Dell, both also Hon Hai clients, will be working with Apple on the independent investigation.
We think Foxconn isn't the only company to do this sort of thing. The KYE plant in China recently got in trouble over labour laws, employing underage workers. It's common knowlege that worker exploitation is de facto in the PRC whether it breaks the lax labour laws or not, and bigwigs who use manufacturing plants tend to turn the other cheek.
The investigation could go two ways: Apple realises that using China as the factory of the world includes putting moral concerns to one side, or it makes a huge and expensive shift in its outsourcing and business model, not to mention extensive lobbying. We're hoping the latter but we won't hold our breath.