“How do we have this amazing microtechnology? Because the factory where they’re making these, they jump off the fucking roof because it’s a nightmare in there. You really have a choice – you can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other, or let someone suffer immeasurably far away just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube while you’re taking a shit.”
The iPhone 6 is coming out soon. But you don’t need one. Your lining up to buy Apple’s latest product is enabling their abuse of workers around the world, including in the United States. Of course, Apple isn’t the only one guilty of this. The HP laptop I’m using to write this article was made in the same way. As is the Samsung smartphone I used to tweet this article after it was published. But Apple is the most glaring example that our need for shiny new gadgets perpetuates atrocities.
Since 1998, seven million people have died in a civil war that continues to plague the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The war began when Rwanda-backed rebels attempted an overthrow of the Congolese government. The government teamed up with local militias known as the “Mai Mai,” who are known to occupy local villages, steal resources, and rape women. The DRC has become known as the “rape capital of the world,” in which marauders use rape as a weapon of coercion. Today, Mai Mai fighters and corrupt members of the Congolese military both enslave children in the DRC to mine columbite and tantalum, which together can form coltan, a necessary ingredient in modern laptops and smartphones.
As this mini-documentary from the Pulitzer Center shows, children as young as 13 are forced to work in the mines for as little as 2 dollars a day. They wear no safety protection, carry a store-bought, battery-powered flashlight, and often die from brutal working conditions that result in suffocation, cave-ins, and death from sheer exhaustion. Multinational corporations like Apple, Samsung, Dell, and HP all depend on the Congolese mining operations for their raw materials, as 80% of the world’s coltan supply comes from the region. The children have no other option but to work in the mines, because school is beyond the financial means of ordinary Congolese families.
The raw materials mined in Congo are then sent to factories in China – most notably, the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. The factory has been described by local media as a “labor camp,” in which teenage students are sought out for employment and are forced to work more than double or even triple the overtime limit (36 hours a month under China’s labor laws), and workers are routinely uncompensated for injuries suffered on the job. Seventeen workers attempted suicide, and 14 died jumping from the roof of the building in 2010. The company responded by putting anti-suicide nets around the building, and forced employees to sign agreements stating that their employer would be exempt from lawsuits brought by family members in the event of their suicide. Foxconn claims to have raised workers’ wages to $298 per month, but workers say those pay raises never came.
After the raw materials for phones and computers are mined by underpaid and overworked Congolese teenagers, and those materials are assembled by underpaid and overworked Chinese teenagers, American teenagers and adults making poverty wages are then put to work in Apple stores hawking the new phones and computers. This is not unlike the triangular slave trade of the 18th century, in which African slaves were traded to America, American sugar and tobacco was traded to Europe, and European textiles, rum, and manufactured goods were traded to Africa. This time, the slaves are in Africa and Asia, and Americans are forced into wage slavery by an economy that encourages corporations to distribute profits upward to executives, while paying workers less and less.
This Forbes article describes how little Apple’s 30,000 Apple store employees nationwide make compared to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who received stock options last year worth $570 million. The average Apple store employee makes $11 to $12 an hour. Sure, it’s higher than the federal minimum wage, but that only amounts to $23,400 to $24,960 in pre-tax income for a full-time employee working 52 weeks in a year. That means even though Apple is raking in massive, record profits by selling expensive technology, and even though Apple has twice more cash on hand than the U.S. Treasury, and even though Apple pays a far lower effective tax rate than the average American family, their workers make so little that theyqualify for food stamps and Medicaid.
However, it isn’t just low-paid Apple store workers who are getting shafted. Tech engineers and coding experts looking for work in Silicon Valley have recently found themselves on the end of a wage restriction conspiracy. A Pando.com investigation published leaked emails showing that leading tech companies like Google, Apple, Dreamworks, Comcast, eBay, Lucasfilm, and others have been conspiring together to keep wages for tech engineers at a set rate, violating workers’ rights to seek competitive compensation. The wage conspiracy encompasses over 1,000,000 employees at over a dozen companies.
Corporations like Apple and HP could do the right thing by simply entering into contracts with the Congolese and Chinese governments to ensure that raw materials are mined and products are manufactured by workers who are paid a living wage and given adequate benefits. They could pay American workers at least $15 an hour, and provide opportunities for high-performing employees to share in some of the skyrocketing profits that were normally only preserved for executives and wealthy shareholders. All of this would result in iPhones and iPads costing a few dollars more. But American consumers would still be more than willing to buy shiny new gadgets for a little more if they knew they were made sustainably.
The decision will ultimately be up to us, the buyers. We either have to collectively decide that we’ll hold onto our current products as long as we can until the promise of sustainable manufacturing is made, or to line up like cattle for the next level of expensive gadgets made possible by a tremendous amount of human suffering.