The Real Cost of Gadget Manufacturing in China: Humans

Today, virtually all electronic gadgets are made in China, from the cheap $100 device to the most premium of tablet computers and entertainment systems. It’s said that it’s not only the low cost of labor in the region that has attracted big brands into outsourcing production here, but also the efficiency at which work is done. It’s only in China where seemingly impossible tasks can be done at a fraction of the time as in other places.

In this Saturday, May 7, 2011 file photo, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese universities' students, dressed as the Foxconn workers, hold mock iPads with a skeleton print outside an Apple Premium Reseller shop in Hong Kong. China is urging Foxconn Technology Group and other Taiwanese companies to pay closer attention to safety in their mainland factories after a fatal blast at a facility that makes Apple iPads. An explosion on Friday, May 20, 2011 at the facility owned by Foxconn, Apple's main manufacturing contractor, killed three employees. (AP)

A New York Times feature has summed it all up, saying that the real reason your gadgets are made in China are speed and flexibility. There is a price, however, that the Chinese have to pay in becoming the top destination for manufacturing, and it’s measured in human terms. A NY Times followup by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza discusses how harsh labor conditions can be in factories like Taiwan’s Foxconn, which runs its manufacturing facilities mostly from China, and which produces about 40% of the world’s gadgets today. Companies like Apple, IBM, HP, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Toshiba and others contract firms like Foxconn, Wintek, and others, to build their designs, with focus on churning out quality products while cutting costs.

Even while Apple has launched its Supplier Responsibility program, which audits suppliers’ labor and business practices, the issue remains. While brands continue dictating their prices, manufacturers will continue using shortcuts and cutting corners, in order to achieve the best margins.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the stories about Foxconn employees jumping off buildings to their death due to depression, or repeated factory explosions at their facilities due to improper ventilation. Then there are the smaller things, but atrocious nonetheless (at least when viewed from the perspective of workers from the developed world): long workweeks, 12 hour shifts, child labor, and cramped dorm living.

Still, amid the supposed audits by their clients (like Apple), the fact remains that suppliers hold “all-important tech companies by the scruff of the neck,” as TechCrunch‘s Devin Coldewey writes. Brands would be on the losing end of the deal if they were to scuttle manufacturers for bad labor practices. Foxconn, for instance, could just retool its production lines to make gadgets for another competitor. Where would Apple be, then?

“The fact of the matter is that we live in a world that demands amazing technology delivered to us at low costs and at great speed,” writes MG Siegler. “That world leads to Foxconn.” And even if we get shocked with the stories we read about factory accidents and poor working conditions, we tend to forget about these the moment we hold that shiny new iPad in our hands.

Is this going to change anytime soon? Will we ever get to producing “conflict free” devices? Or is the value of human life too little nowadays, with billion-dollar profits and cheap, subsidized devices?