How Protests in China Spotlight the Ethics of Buying Smartphones

Poor working conditions alleged at Apple manufacturer

  • Workers at iPhone manufacturing plants in China are protesting poor working conditions.
  • Some ethics experts say you should consider not upgrading your iPhone due to labor problems.
  • One way to help is to make your feelings known on social media.
Close up of hands with a phone

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Unrest in manufacturing plants in China, where Apple makes its phones, is spotlighting the country's controversial human rights record. 

Turmoil at the Foxconn manufacturing center reportedly could impact Apple's plans to make enough iPhone Pro models to meet demand. But some experts say users should reconsider whether they buy iPhones at all. 

"One of the basic principles underlying human rights is that no one ought to be treated merely as a means to some end," Sarah Cabral, a business ethics scholar at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, told Lifewire in an email interview. "In simplified terms, it is morally wrong to use people. Therefore, Foxconn and, by extension, Apple executives act unethically if they use factory workers to their own advantage and fail to respect the inherent freedom and dignity due each person."

iPhone Controversy

While Apple's supply chain has long been a target for criticism, the most recent problems emerged due to the pandemic. Apple's supplier, Foxconn, the company responsible for assembling and shipping 70 percent of iPhones globally, stems from concerns over alleged human rights abuses. Cabral said that new Foxconn employees at the Zhengzhou location were promised bonus payments they did not receive when expected, and all 200,000 employees there are currently forced to live within a "closed-loop" system. 

"This means that Foxconn factory workers live and work within the same campus and cannot take public transportation, including taxis, to travel into town," Cabral added. "This has raised concerns among employees who fear that rising COVID-19 cases at the factory are endangering their safety. Workers are protesting because they believe that their collective isolation protects the wider public at their own expense."

Collen Clark, a lawyer and founder of the firm Schmidt & Clark, which often litigates against large corporations, said in an email interview that the Foxconn Technology factory has been criticized for violating ethics and responsible working conditions. Clark said workers are forced to live in crowded dormitories, stand for long hours, exceed the 60-hour work limit, and receive low wages. 

"These harsh working conditions in the midst of containing a COVID outbreak essentially ignore workers' rights, which raises the question: 'is it ethical to own an iPhone?'" Clark added. It forces a socially conscious person to question their perception—are they willing to ignore the strong evidence that points out the unethical situation these workers are currently in?"

The problems at Foxconn stem from the power imbalance between the manufacturer and Apple, according to a paper published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science. Maggie Chuoyan Dong, the paper's co-author, said in a news release that Apple is powerful while Foxconn faces narrow profit margins, forcing Foxconn to put additional pressure on employees.

"There are certainly production management issues within Foxconn. Given the limited/poor margin, there is also the power imbalance issue within its relationships with Apple, which forces Foxconn to reduce costs," Dong said.

How to Buy an Ethical Phone

Cabral said she owns an iPhone 12. 

"In light of current events, should I purchase a Samsung Galaxy when it is time to buy another phone?" she asked rhetorically. But she pointed out that Samsung has also had its fair share of criticism hurled against its own treatment of employees.

Apple isn't the only tech company to face criticism for working conditions at plants that supply its products. A study conducted by the environmental non-governmental organization IPEN and the Vietnam-based Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED) found poor working conditions in Samsung's Vietnamese smartphone production sites. Workers claimed to be suffering from fatigue, fainting, dizziness, and pain from standing for long periods.

person working from home in residential kitchen with family in background

MoMo Productions / Getty Images

A practical moral response to recent events involving smartphone makers is to hold off on upgrading your phone, Cabral said. She also suggested users show empathy for Foxconn employees by posting on social media.

"A search on Twitter using key terms 'Apple' and 'Foxconn' results in post after post highlighting the Foxconn protests," Cabral said. "Companies respond to consumer preferences, and if the outcry is loud enough, Apple could exert more pressure on Foxconn to continuously improve working conditions. Therefore, at a minimum, we can curb our purchasing and voice our values on social media to make a positive change, even if it is unlikely to radically alter the factory system through which our goods are produced."

But Clark contended that change does not come from boycotting products because it has little or no effect on the working conditions of the laborers. "Boycotting only leads to worse conditions and unemployment," he added. "Change should come from the overall transformation of the system itself."

The situation becomes even murkier when businesses consider buying phones, Clark said.
"In a business setting, however, economic responsibility comes first," he added. "The functional capabilities of an iPhone allow workplaces to become 'necessary.'"

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