Do you love the new iPhone 5s/5c? Its production is not a labour of love… Why it is time for alternatives to Apple and the iPhone.

Do you love the new iPhone 5s/5c?
Its production is not a labour of love…
Why it is time for alternatives to Apple and the iPhone.

By Christian Fuchs

Apple sold 9 million iPhones 5s and 5c in the days after the release. The tech giant’s share price increased by almost 10% from around US$450 on September 16th to US$490 on September 24th. With sales of US$164.7 billion, profits of US$41.7 billion and capital assets of US$196.1 billion in 2012, Apple is the world’s 15th largest global company and this position may further increase in the near future.

Apple markets the iPhone 5c/s as being “for the colourful” and an expression of “forward thinking”. These ad slogans hail the members of the urban middle class who have knowledge jobs, define themselves as modern and tech-savvy and have a mobile lifestyle. More than 1 million people commute in and out of London every day. With an iPhone or a similar device, public spaces such as the train, the tube, the bus, parks and cafés become liquid offices, work places and global communication interchanges.

But there is a dark side of the iPhone. 30% of the world’s tin is extracted in Bangka and Belitung, where children and other workers toil under slave-like conditions. Yet Apple has not answered to the question if the iPhone 5 contains blood and sweat-tin.

A digital medium such as the iPhone contains raw materials out of which components are manufactured that are then assembled. Apple has been strongly criticized for letting its devices assemble under 19th century-like working conditions in Foxconn factories, where 17 young workers attempted to commit suicide in 2010. 13 of them died. Has the situation at Foxconn changed in 2013? Whereas Apple’s 2012 Supplier Responsibility Report argues based on rather questionable and non-transparent definitions and empirical methods that the suppliers handle the majority of labour issues well, it also says that only 38% of the suppliers respect working hours standards. The 2013 Report says, “we achieved an average of 92 percent compliance with a maximum 60-hour work week”. Apple’s standards of working times specify, “Apple’s Code sets a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work, while allowing exceptions in unusual or emergency circumstances“.

The International Labor Organization’s Forty-Hour Week Convention (1935) suggests limiting the weekly work time to 40 hours. This convention has not been ratified in China, but is considered a reasonable standard by labour experts. China has a standard working time system of 44 hours, but grants exceptions. Whereas 35-40 hours work a week are generally considered a normal standard in the West, Apple does not seem to have a problem accepting when employees of its suppliers work at least 50% more than this standard and the racial connotations that such a practice has. The fact that Apple defines itself what appropriate working conditions are and based on this assumption itself measures reality against these standards shows the problem of CSR reporting, namely that it is mainly voluntary and not conducted by well-resourced independent agencies that have coercive measures at hand in order to punish corporate offenders and enforce standards. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) conducted an empirical study for Apple that showed that 64.3% of the respondents think that their salaries do not cover their basic needs. Critics questioned the FLA’s independence. A 2013 report by Students & Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) points out that 80% of the 130 respondents in Chinese firms that supply Apple were precarious workers, 70-100 hours working weeks were common and there was a rise of slave-like student interns and military management. The report concludes, “Apple does not care about the systematic violations at its suppliers”. “The average work for the last 18 months has been at the very least 7 days, 5 hours, or 78 1/2- hours a week”. This passage could stem from a report describing working conditions at Foxconn, but in fact is an observation that Karl Marx cited about a British wallpaper factory in 1867.

In the 2013 Report, Apple also argues that it terminates its business with companies that engage in child labour or debt bondage slavery. The company does not see any irresponsibility in its own practices, but rather blames “them” – corrupt Chinese companies and labour agencies. Returning children to their parents does not solve the problem of poverty that results in child labour and makes parents willing to send their children to work in factories. If the children are returned, then the family will have less money than before, so its material conditions are likely to worsen. Apple also does not problematize that its operations in China aim at cost-cutting in order to increase profits.

It is a basic problem of fair trade products that they often cannot compete with the price levels set by large global corporations. Fair trade thereby becomes an issue of class and affordability – a mechanism for the middle class’ achievement of conscientiousness because it other than the precariat can afford buying a quiet conscience. The FairPhone will cost 325 Euros and therefore is a price alternative to the iPhone 5c/s that costs in any of its versions more than £469. Although the minerals of the FairPhone are conflict-free, the working conditions, hours and wages in the Chinese manufacturing company A’Hong that assembles the FairPhone have thus far remained unclear, which shows alternative projects’ structural problems within capitalism. FairPhone is a for-profit social enterprise. Even if enterprises try to do good, under a for-profit imperative and logic they are facing strong pressures to find ways for reducing production costs in order to maximize profits.

A Foxconn worker says, “Though we produce for iPhone, I haven’ t got a chance to use iPhone. I believe it is fascinating and has lots of function. However, I don’t think I can own one by myself”. The production of digital media is embedded into global inequalities that show the need to base the entire production of such tools on non-profit logic and to put all involved organizations under workers’ self-management.

It is time that we give up the ideas of corporate profit, for-profit social enterprises and corporate social responsibility in the context of digital media and replace them by the logics of non-profit, the commons and self-management.

Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster’s Centre for Social Media Research. He is author of the forthcoming books “Digital Labour and Karl Marx” (Routledge 2014), “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” (Sage 2014) and “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism” (Zero Books 2014).

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