Ring the changes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

I am a user of Apple products. On the day news emerged that some workers at a company that made Apple parts had fallen ill from chemical poisoning, a friend said to me, 'Please throw away your iPhone'. He wasn't joking, because no one should take the health of workers as a joke. It made me think seriously about the responsibilities and obligations of consumers in such matters.

Shortly after the Lunar New Year holiday, Apple Inc released its annual survey of its suppliers, reporting for the first time that the health of 137 workers at a supplier's plant in Suzhou had been 'adversely affected'. While Apple prides itself on its technologically advanced gadgets, these workers in fact suffered harm the old-fashioned way: the n-hexane solution they used to clean touch screens was toxic. Other firms use alcohol for this work, but Wintek Corp, the company that owns the Suzhou plant, used n-hexane to speed up production because the chemical dries faster than alcohol.

The affected workers said they had not received reasonable compensation or sufficient medical treatment for their illness. Their prospects for future employment are also worrying.

Shenzhen's Foxconn, one of Apple's biggest contract manufacturers, said it does not use n-hexane in its operations. This is welcome news. But, of course, Foxconn has had far more serious problems - a spate of worker suicides.

Last October, a report investigating conditions in Foxconn factories was published, the result of a collaboration between teachers and students from universities on the mainland, and in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The researchers found that Foxconn had not resolved the problems that led to the suicides, as earlier media reports claimed. The company is - as before - a large, authoritarian empire that deprives workers of their basic rights. It still requires its workers to put in overtime and cuts their overtime pay, and continues to employ students and disregard labour safety. Workers are still subject to a concentration-camp style of management, making it difficult for them to object to their treatment, the researchers said. Conditions are just as psychologically stressful as they were. There are fewer reported suicides only because the company has become better at identifying workers on the verge of an emotional breakdown, whom they immediately send home, the report said.

This practice is not unlike a big city that thinks itself more civilised for sending away the street vendors and beggars.

I mention the Foxconn suicides because the latest case of worker poisoning in Jiangsu made me think about what I should and can do. The harm suffered by the poisoned workers is upsetting, but is it serious enough that I should throw away my iPhone in protest? In the face of a loss of more than 10 lives, however, this is no longer the question to ask.

I had tried to defend myself. Every act in protest bears a price, I reasoned. How much should ordinary Apple consumers be prepared to pay if they wanted to protest against the company? What about non-Apple consumers who don't have phones to throw away? Why do they get to pay a smaller price? This line of argument ignores a valid point. The support that Apple enjoys among its fans is certainly far more enthusiastic than the support given by non-Apple users to their product of choice. The popularity of Apple products is a key reason the company can afford to be indifferent to the conditions for its contract workers.

True, Apple disclosed the poisonings of its own accord. But its supplier survey was the result of consistent pressure from many environmental groups. In April last year, more than 30 non-governmental environmental organisations on the mainland, including Friends of Nature and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, released the findings of their investigation into heavy-metal pollution in the supply chain of IT companies. Their study covered 29 well-known IT brands at home and abroad, including Apple.

A common strategy employed by international green groups to protest against a company is to call for a consumer boycott. It is puzzling why such a tactic is rare on the mainland. The adverts that we do see - for campaigns to stop eating shark fin or wear fur coats, for example - are put up by the local chapters of international groups. Any protest movements against the treatment of Chinese workers should logically find ready support among Chinese consumers. But no local environmental group has tapped them. Is it because they think mainland consumers have a weak sense of responsibility, or because of the general decline of social movements here?

It may be that people take part in social protests mainly to vent their outrage at an injustice, but they also care about the effectiveness of their action. If social protests are effectively organised, and can create pressure on manufacturers to improve workers' living conditions, I believe many Apple users would take part without hesitation. In reality, however, social protests in China have achieved little over the years, and this has engendered a sense of helplessness among its people. No rallying on the streets, no freedom of organisation, and the groups we have are divided and isolated. It's no surprise that people think taking part in a protest is a sacrifice for nothing.

But this should not stop us doing something. Organisers of social protests must understand the mindset of Chinese people, and devise more sophisticated strategies that suit. Besides throwing away their iPhone, what other effective channels of protest are available to Apple users? By extension, what can a non-Apple user do, besides calling on Apple users to discard their iPhones?

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese