iPad controversy highlights growing inequality in China

by Michelle Brooks

Despite a plethora of reasons why I am not holding a new Apple iPad (mostly financial), recent news of a spate of suicides at the Foxconn plant near Shenzhen in China where it is made has forced me to consider concerns that are of course hardly new to Geographers.  Don’t get me wrong, I am as gadget hungry as the next person but I was struck by the sense of crisis that led to this final act of desperation, and as a consumer of electronics (like the laptop I am writing on) I can’t help but feel deeply my part, the consumers part, in all of this. The 300,000 workers who live at the Longhua factory work six days a week and average overtime is 120 hours per month equating to an average 70 hour week, the maximum set by Apple. Workers must not talk during working hours and regularly ‘burn out’ leading to an enormous staff turnover of 50,000 a month.

The mediation of commodities through markets, advertising, global hysteria, exoticism and status et alia dilutes the knowledge we have of the half-life existence of those whose hands produce them, as discussed in an article by Peter Jackson for Transactions(1999), and increases the distance between us and the production line. It is possible that though factory conditions have not got worse or changed recently, what has changed is the Chinese factory worker. Globalisation produces outcomes on all sides one of which is rising inequality. With its previously socialist framework China is experiencing the emergence of inequity; industrialisation and the economic boom potentially fuelling new aspirations and heightening expectations. 
Fulong Wu
(2003) writes in Area of the impact of this emerging inequality in Beijing through a case study of housing trends.

Reaction from Apple has been swift, and a raft of measures to increase wellbeing for the workers is planned including a reported 80% pay increase, indicative of previous low wages.  For my part the events at the Longhua plant are a stark reminder that though we in the ‘West’ increasingly manage to drive down the price of commodities; somewhere, someone is paying the price.

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