Tabulating the True 'Human Cost of an iPad'

Friday's Wall Street Journal featured, on the front page of its Marketplace section, an article headlined "Measuring the Human Cost of an iPad Made in China." The subject is Foxconn, or rather Hon Hai Precision Industry; Foxconn is just a trade name for this enormous Taiwanese company, the world's largest maker of electronic components by revenue, and China's biggest exporter and private employer. The occasion is a recent explosion in a Hon Hai factory producing Apple (AAPL) iPad 2s, in which three people were killed and fifteen injured. And what follows is a distressingly good example of the dangers of reporting the world from the perspective of revenue-maximizing alone.

The article begins logically enough, by noting how startlingly different the response would be if such an incident took place in Cupertino, California, the site of Apple's headquarters, rather than in Chengdu, China. In the former case, "an army of regulators, cops and plaintiffs [sic] lawyers would descend on the company to demand an accounting." In the latter case, i.e. reality, nothing much happened in the way of a response: Hon Hai closed the metal polishing workshop where the explosion occurred -- reportedly because of an accumulation of metal dust in the air -- and other such facilities in its several factories; Apple (AAPL), according to PCWorld, "said it was working with Foxconn to understand what caused the incident." Last night, just shy of two weeks after the fatal explosion, PCWorld reported that Hon Hai "has reopened all its polishing workshops, other than the one at Chengdu," following "a review of all safety policies and procedures at the workshops."

PCWorld went on to note that "the explosion has created concerns that it will lead to a shortage in iPads. But the explosion won't likely lead to any delays in iPad production, because Foxconn has backup systems to handle these kinds of emergencies, said Jamie Wang, an analyst with research firm Gartner." Whether the explosion had created concerns that three people were dead, or whether Hon Hai has any system for holding itself accountable and paying reparations to the injured, went unmentioned. Analyst Wang did allow that "this blast comes as another blow to Foxconn that further damages the company's image," and noted the unfortunate fact that "Foxconn will have to pay more costs to improve the factory working environment and safety." Certainly regrettable, from the standpoint of the bottom line.

This is a distressing feature of business news: The near-complete eradication of human considerations in favor of numbers, profits and expenses. If anything resembling a moral or ethical objection arises, it has to be couched in the language of perception and public relations -- i.e., accidents matter not because they undeniably kill and maim, but inasmuch as they might harm a company's image.

PCWorld is not unaware of the outrageousness of what happened in Chengdu. Its May 22 piece about the explosion focused on a report issued by the Hong Kong Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, entitled "Foxconn and Apple Fail to Fulfill Promises: Predicaments of Workers After the Suicides." This 20-page report, dated May 6, 2011, called attention to (among other abuses) unsafe conditions in the polishing department, where workers are said to have complained about aluminum dust: "Even though they have worn gloves, their hands are still covered by dust and so [are] their face[s] and clothes. Some workers comment that ventilation on shop floor should be improved." (The preliminary official Hon Hai finding on the nature of the accident: An explosion of aluminum dust in a ventilation duct.) And yet the article concludes on a note of utter vacuity: "Hopefully Foxconn is taking steps to improve conditions in its assembly plants in China, but if nothing else Friday's incident confirms that there is still room for improvement."

The WSJ Marketplace article is particularly striking in this regard, for it seems to announce itself, in its headline, as something different, a departure from the usual heartless methods of accounting. Here, we are promised, will be a measure of "the human cost" of a consumer good that Americans have come to covet. And yet the article itself is business reporting as usual. There is no mention of the victims; instead, much space is given to the superficial measures taken by Hon Hai's American customers in response to its abuses. We learn that "Apple audits Hon Hai's facilities and requires its suppliers to agree to a 'Supplier Code of Conduct,'" and if we've been paying attention to this story we are reminded of the anti-suicide pacts that Hon Hai workers must sign as a condition of employment. Founder Terry Gou is implicitly praised for having "early and adroitly capitalized on labor and supply chains in China," i.e. having taken advantage of a population being massively exploited by its autocratic rulers in the name of development. "His factories," we are told, "include dorms, dining halls, book stores and recreation facilities," but if we want to learn what life is actually like inside these "labor camps" (the words of a report issued by 20 Chinese universities) we have to turn to a work of real journalism, such as the Daily Mail's 2006 exposé of a Hon Hai iPod factory. But then, in the judgment of the Journal, "Hon Hai might not look half bad" if "compared with conditions at factories when the West industrialized," i.e. beginning in the late eighteenth century. So much for the progress of civilization.

Such rhetoric of course offends any humane sensibility, but the real problem with this callous approach to reporting is that it lets Apple -- the one actor who could definitely change this situation -- off the hook. So long as we remain in thrall to these master marketers -- with their colorful visions of happiness and creativity (which contrast so starkly with the meaningless drudgery of making an iPad), and their massive profits -- we will stay complicit in the system that oppresses and dehumanizes our fellows in China. (The Marketplace article was right in noting the shared responsibility of "U.S. consumers seeking rock-bottom prices" and "shareholders demanding solid profit margins," though it rather absurdly went on to include in the same category "local workers eager to move up the economic ladder.") In 2010, Apple proclaimed itself "saddened and upset by the recent suicides at Foxconn"; now they "are deeply saddened by the tragedy at Foxconn's plant in Chengdu, and [their] hearts go out to the victims and their families." The token deepening of sadness is not enough. As users of Apple products -- as well as those of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Dell (DELL), and Sony (SNE) -- we need to demand an understanding that transcends the language of public relations. We musn't let the material nature of business mean that things trump people in our view of the world, not even in the business section -- especially not with "human" in the headline.

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