I’m not sure what to think about the cover story of the March issue of Wired. The cover states, in a way that apparently should make the conclusion clear: 1 million workers, 90 million iPhones, 17 suicides.
First, a minor point: 17 suicides in how many years? If it’s in one year that seems kind of low. If it’s in a month that seems really high. If it’s in five years they’re doing a really good job with suicide prevention. I think most people will assume that it’s a bad thing because it’s on the cover of a magazine.
But this minor point leads into a major point. The article seems to be a balanced look at the working conditions in some of Apple’s factories and, to my and writer Joel Johnson’s surprise, things may not be as bad as we would expect given all the bad press these factories get. Johnson says:
That 17 people have committed suicide at Foxconn is a tragedy. But in fact, the suicide rate at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant remains below national averages for both rural and urban China, a bleak but unassailable fact that does much to exonerate the conditions at Foxconn and absolutely nothing to bring those 17 people back.
Wait, what? I’ve talked about the suicides in Apple’s plants a lot on this blog but it still can’t stop me from disagreeing entirely with this statement. This plant is actually below the national suicide average but Johnson still blames the plant for the remaining deaths. Imagine a drug that saved half of the patients from a disease that has a 100% mortality rate. Would it make sense to blame the half of the patients that did die on the drug? In epidemiology we would say that this plant seems to have a protective effect meaning it looks as though it’s preventing suicides that would normally occur if that million people weren’t working in this plant. That’s a good thing. Of course, you can’t base any conclusions on information like this because there could be a lot factors confusing this effect that aren’t taken into account like the gender and age of the workers committing suicide.
The last lines of the article are even worse:
When 17 people take their lives, I ask myself, did I in my desire [for gadgets] hurt them? Even just a little?
And of course the answer, inevitable and immeasurable as the fluttering silence of our sun, is yes.
Just a little.
This is bad journalism as its worst. The article, overall, portrays these plants as not half bad but with some question marks around things like “volunteer overtime” that might not be so voluntary and people working 12 hours a day for 13 days straight to get the first generation of iPads out. But who wants to read a shocking cover story that ends with the opposite conclusion and, even worse, with some ambiguity around that conclusion? It doesn’t make for good magazine sales.
I’m walking away from this article with exactly that opposite conclusion even though it dampens some arguments I’ve made in previous posts. It is possible the iPhone factories aren’t as bad as I thought they were although there are still some important loose ends. Such as this Financial Times story which places Apple at the bottom of a list of multinational companies in responding to concerns about environmental and worker health protection practices. Or this NY Times article which claims:
Last year, a 25-year-old worker killed himself after he was accused of stealing an iPhone prototype. In e-mail and text messages to friends, he said he had been beaten by the company’s security officers.
And, again, just so iPhone owners don’t feel like I’m picking on them exclusively, I’m writing this from a MacBook so this article is just as easily aimed at me.
The last section of the article is a complete non-sequitur about the environmental impacts of consumerism but I did like the way Johnson puts one thing:
I believe that humankind made a subconscious collective bargain at the dawn of the industrial age to trade the resources of our planet for the chance to escape it. We live in the transitional age between that decision and its conclusion.