Where’s The Harm – Product Assembly

Sweat shops

Not very long ago, many of the electronics products we buy were manufactured in the U.S. But in just a few years, the manufacturing was moved overseas to developing countries, to take advantage of cheaper labor and  weaker regulations. The brand name owners have contracted out the manufacturing and assembly of their products to contract manufacturers.

Now many of our electronic products are assembled in sweat shops run by these contract manufacturers, such as those in China, where workers are exposed to toxic materials, forced to work overtime, forced to meet high production quotas, and paid below a living wage. Workers are also not allowed to organize or form independent unions to defend themselves and demand better working conditions.[i] Soldering workers often burn their hands with soldering irons when they speed up production to meet quotas.

The largest electronics contract manufacturing company in the world is Hon Hai Precision Industry, Ltd of Taiwan, commonly known as Foxconn. Foxconn has 13 factories in China alone, and almost 1 million workers worldwide. They have been in the news  lately because of the sweatshop conditions under which Apple is manufacturing iPhones and iPads.  Horrible working conditions have led to 18 workers attempting suicide in 2010.  Read more about Foxconn and Apple.

But these kinds of problems are not limited to Foxconn. A study by China Labor Watch shows that the deplorable conditions at Foxconn are actually typical of the electronics contract manufacturers in Asia. In their study of 10 electronics factories in the Guangdong and Jiangsu regions of China, they found widespread problems in all the factories, (eight of which are suppliers to Dell, and seven to HP) including:

  • All factories had people working overtime hours from 36 – 160 per month. (Legal limit is 36 hours).
  • In nine of the ten factories, the minimum monthly wage ($138 in one factory) didn’t meet the living costs of many workers, which leaves them no other option but to take many hours of overtime work just to survive.
  • High pressure production line conditions, often standing for 8 to 10 hours a day or more. Breaks are often not allowed.
  • Discrimination. All ten factories were found to discriminate in hiring. Many prefer young (often below 18 years), female workers who are seen as easier to control.

 Tragedies of Globalization: The Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops, China Labor Watch, July 12,

The Dark Side of Cyberspace: Insaide the Sweatshops of China’s Computer Hardware Production.  WEED – World Economy, Ecology & Development, 2008.

Recent Media Coverage:

Why your iThings don’t have to be weCruel, Grist, Feb 29, 2012

In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, New York Times, Jan 25, 2012, by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza

[i] Make It Fair