Is it ethical to buy an iPhone or iPad made in a Chinese sweatshop?


My amazing iPhone 3GS was made in Foxconn’s huge factory in Shenzen, China, where workers toil long hours under unhealthy and downright dangerous conditions, put in forced, unpaid overtime, sleep in crowded dormitories, and—occasionally, commit suicide.

Now I’m ready to upgrade to the newest iPhone 4S, with Siri, the personal assistant with attitude. But can I give Apple more business with a clear conscience?

The outsourcing of millions of jobs to low cost countries has eliminated the American consumer electronics industry. Virtually all desktop and laptop computers are made in Asia, along with nearly all mobile phones, TV sets, and radios. Americans have gone on to other jobs, but many have never found employment as good as they had in manufacturing.

The cost to Americans is arguably far outweighed by the benefits of a dizzying variety of goods that are far, far more affordable than they were years ago. But do our benefits come at the cost of exploiting workers in China, for example?

If we look at the working conditions at Foxconn we’re tempted to say yes. And many people have taken what they consider a principled stand against buying Apple products, or indeed, any products made under sub-standard—by American standards—conditions.

But the Foxconn workers aren’t slaves—they flock to Shenzen
from all over China for a job that’ll be their ticket to a better life. Outsourcing from the developed world has already lifted hundreds of millions of Asians out of extreme poverty. When you buy an iPhone you help Chinese workers enter the middle class as they become able to rent their own flat, support a family, and buy an iPhone.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is fond of saying, “The only thing worse than a sweatshop is no sweatshop at all, no employment whatsoever.”

Apple has a code of conduct for its suppliers that requires “to provide safe and healthy working conditions, to use fair hiring practices, to treat their workers with dignity and respect, and to adhere to environmentally responsible practices in manufacturing.” The company itself conducts some inspections of supplier operations, and just yesterday, in response to reports of dire conditions at Foxconn, asked the industry-funded Fair Labor Association for an intensive audit of conditions at Foxconn.

We know that Apple is doing something to take responsibility for working conditions in their supply chain. Whether they are doing enough is still open to argument. But it’s unarguable that buying my iPhone 4S will help, not hurt, Chinese workers. 



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5 Responses to “Is it ethical to buy an iPhone or iPad made in a Chinese sweatshop?”

  1. Mike Somerville Says:

    The working conditions in your picture look no different than the Dell, Geek Squad or Callaway golf assembly or repair factories. Looks like a clean, professional, process driven environment. I’m thrilled that your post highlighted the “Solution” that Apple (and many other companies) have put in place. I’m all about Progress not Perfection! Here’s to “better”.

    • Ethics Bob Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The photo doesn’t capture the unseen–forced overtime, toxic chemicals, et al. My sense is that Apple is trying to do the right thing, although I’m open to more info.

  2. tlevier Says:

    Bob, If you haven’t already, I just wanted to give you my 2 cents. My first iPhone was a 3GS, then the 4, and now the 4S. The 4S has been giving me more problems than the other 2 models (audio cuts out, freezing, etc) It may be just my specific unit, but if you can wait until Oct for the next model, it may be worth it. Of course, the upgrade from 3GS would be significant already.

  3. Ethics Bob Says:

    Tim, Very considerate of you to offer your experience. The bad news: I received my iP4S from yesterday. The good news–so far it’s wonderful. I especially love Siri.

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