Last week, Apple and its manufacturing partner, Foxconn, were accused once again of questionable labor practices — this time, for using allegedly forced and unpaid student labor. If you want to be either sensational or just very technical, that’s called slavery.
The first video you see on the iPhone landing page talks a lot about manufacturing (we’ve clipped the whole section above), which is unusual for Apple, at least at suchlength. But rather than addressing labor concerns, or even offering soothing platitudes, it skirts them entirely. It projects an image of Apple’s manufacturing processes as being utterly mechanized; of its factories as sterile, robotic warehouses of automation. It is not workers that perform actions but a vague we — “we built a product,” “we’ve developed processes,” “we machine all of the surfaces.” Where there is no we, there’s plenty of passive voice: analysis “is done” and the best match “is determined.” The video mostly just shows a phone on a pedestal — literally on a pedestal! — being perfected by machines.
It would be strange for Apple to address sensitive labor issues in a product launch video, of course. But this is nonetheless striking. “Labor” and “manufacturing” are two words that evoke bad feelings when paired with “Apple.” This is an unfortunate way to try to remedy that.
For some counterprogramming, here’s part of an account of what it’s like in an iPhone factory, as told by an undercover journalist at the Shanghai Morning Post:
The first night sleeping at Foxconn dormitory is a nightmare. The whole dormitory smells like garbage when I walked in. It’s a mixed of overnight garbage smell plus dirty sweat and foam smell. Outside every room was fully piled up with uncleared trash. When I opened my wardrobe, lots of cockroaches crawl out from inside and the bedsheets that are being distributed to every new workers are full of dirts and ashes.
Here’s a representative quote from Apple’s video:
During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.
And another from the worker’s account:
I’m being assigned to mark placement points on the iPhone 5 back-plate using an oil-based paint pen. I’m being scolded many times for spilling too much oil on the markings. My roommate has being assigned to paste the masking tapes of not more than 5mm wide on the right spots that I have marked. And he has being scolded many times for pasting them too slow. Our supervisor said that these works were actually being assigned to females workers with nimbler fingers, but due to too many workers have resigned lately they have no choice but to assign these jobs to male workers.
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