posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 26th May 2010 11:45 UTC
IconNow this is a subject I've been tiptoeing around for a while now, not entirely sure what to do with it: the suicides at Chinese electronics manufacturer Foxconn. Instead of acting all morally smug and superior from my comfortable rural home in one of the richest countries in the world, I want to talk about two things journalists and bloggers should really stop focusing on when writing about this story: Apple, and the suicides. Wait, what?

I'm sure most of you are aware of the stories in the press regarding Foxconn, the world's largest electronics manufacturer, which produces, among other things, parts for just about every large electronics brand you can think of - from Apple to Dell, from HP to Nintendo. Personally, I own a whole boatload of devices which are (mostly) made by Foxconn: three motherboards (my desktop, bedroom HTPC, and PowerMac G4) and my Xbox 360.

In recent months, the press and blogs have focussed quite a lot on the suicides happening at Foxconn; this year, 10 Foxconn employees have committed suicide. Many blame possible inhumane working conditions at Foxconn, but an undercover reporter inside the factory concluded that conditions aren't as bad as anyone expected - in fact, it's better than most other places. The problem, according to the inside reporter, is that young people come to work here hoping to eventually start their own business or go to college, but most never realise that dream.

The problem is that the press and bloggers have had a nasty tendency to focus on two aspects of this story: Apple, and the suicides themselves. The latter may sound weird, but I'll explain later on. Let's talk about Apple first, though, and what they have to do with this story.

A lot of media outlets and bloggers have a rather strange tendency to focus on Apple when it comes to the suicides at Foxconn. You'll often hear things like "suicides at iPhone factory", or "iPhone workers commit suicide", or something along those lines. People are trying to make it seem - for whatever reason - as if Apple is somehow involved, and as if Apple, and Apple alone, is responsible for the Foxconn factory.

This is absolute nonsense. Foxconn makes products and parts for a whole boatload of companies, and more likely than not, your house is filled with stuff manufactured by them - even if you don't own a single Apple product. Linking the suicides to Apple specifically is not only sensationalism, it's incredibly tasteless.

There's enough to criticise Apple for, but this certainly doesn't belong on that list. Please, stop linking the Foxconn problems to Apple specifically.

The second thing journalists and bloggers should stop doing is withholding vital information only to be able to make more sensationalist stories that appeal to our universal western sense of superiority. If you tell us rich and comfy westerners that in 2010, ten Foxconn workers have committed suicide, we'll get all concerned and angry at the company for mistreating their workers.

However, an important bit of information is often ignored, because this bit of information kind of takes all the sting out of this juicy story: the total amount of workers at Foxconn. This massive company has an even more massive amount of workers: 486000 employees (although AP states 300000, and The New York Times says 420000). That would be 3% of the Dutch population.

This number is so immense it will fly over most people's heads, but it's a very important figure, because if you compare the number of suicides among Foxconn's 486000 employees to the Chinese average, you'll see that Foxconn is still well below said average. In China, 14 out of 100000 people commit suicide every year. This means that to match China's average, 68 Foxconn employees would have to commit suicide every year.

By comparison, in The Netherlands we have a suicide rate of 10 per 100000. The US does 11 per 100000.

These are very basic statistics. Is it harsh to reduce people to statistics? Of course it is, but in this case, it's vital, because it illustrates that these figures simply aren't out of the ordinary. Of course, every life lost is one too many, but we have to keep both feet on the ground here and look at this objectively.

All this doesn't mean I approve of whatever's going on in China - all I want to illustrate is that the outrage we're seeing right now is misplaced. This story provides us rich westerners with an opportunity to soothe our own conscience by waving our collective moral stick at Foxconn - only so that after the waving we can go back to buying boatloads of products manufactured by people who most likely work and live under conditions far worse than the people at Foxconn.

These kinds of realisations are never pleasant; like how being against child labour is all well and fine from a principle standpoint - until you realise that a lot of families in this world (sadly) are dependant on their children working. If their children didn't bring money into the family, they'd starve. Harsh, but reality. If you had to choose between sending your children to work and having something to eat, or sending your children to a school that probably doesn't exist anyway and starve to death, what would you choose?

These are the kinds of moral dilemmas we'd rather not be confronted with. We demand ever lower prices, but then act all outraged and morally superior whenever we're confronted with the results of our demands.

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