When seeking a labor force, “humans are cheaper”

An employee at Foxconn, a Chinese technology manufacturer, used the above quote in an interview with CNN to describe why the company uses people instead of machines to make all sorts of gadgets, including iPods, iPhones, the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle and probably the computer you use to write your papers. I wrote this column on an Apple MacBook, where it clearly says on the case it was “assembled in China.”

Foxconn has been in the news recently after over 100 employees threatened to commit mass suicide after they were denied previously promised compensation, according to gaming website Kotaku. The workers, who had climbed to the roof of one of the factory buildings, were eventually talked down from their position, but there has been no follow-up by Foxconn as to their conditions.

This was not the first time suicide and Foxconn were reported in the news. Between 2010 and 2011, 18 workers at the facility died by suicide, the majority jumping from the roofs of the factories or dormitories.

Apple, Microsoft and Sony, among other companies that have deals with Foxconn, have rarely commented on the situation there other than through carefully worded press releases saying they take the safety of workers “seriously.” Ultimately this leads to the question of whether or not any of the companies involved (and its customers) care about how their stuff is made.

According to The New York Times, if the iPhone was produced in the United States it would add around $65 to the final cost of the product due to the labor laws of the United States. China has no such laws in place for companies, which allows Foxconn to make its workers work 20 hour shifts (one once worked for 34 hours straight), then live in cramped dormitories with a few thousand others. The likelihood of China adding labor laws anytime soon are slim, and Foxconn would only change its ways if the companies it works with put pressure on it. That pressure would only come from the major tech companies if its customers (like you and me) called for better working conditions in China.

Basically, do you care more about getting an iPhone the day it comes out or the way workers are treated at a factory in China?

If your answer is the former, it does not make you a terrible person. In fact, the desire for new products created a line of people that stretched for more than 600 feet applying for new jobs at Foxconn, likely for iPhone 5 production, according to Kotaku. Workers at Foxconn make good wages compared to other manufacturing companies in China, yet they are treated poorly and forced to work long hours in a cramped space.

Non-tech companies, like Nike, remodeled and fixed up their factories after many public complaints. It’s time for those complaints to hit Apple, Microsoft and any other company that works with Foxconn. No one should expect these multi-national, billion-dollar corporations to make changes on their own.

Should you boycott buying new electronics? Not necessarily, but you need to think long and hard about whether you really need that new device; whether it’s worth what it cost to make.