In 2010 when 18 people committed suicide at a FOXCONN facility, which supplies parts to Apple and Hewlet-Packard, concerns were raised about the quality of work environment these on-site workers were subjected to and widespread media coverage pressured these companies to find a solution. The question we will debate here is whether the engineers at Apple/HP had a moral obligation to ensure that their manufacturing partner was treating its workers fairly and if the continued partnership is ethical.
Against: The Foxconn Con
The deaths of 18 workers was tragic loss of life and it is the duty of Foxconn to ensure that the circumstances that led to these deaths are avoided in future. However the safety of Foxconn’s workers is not the responsibility of Apple/Hewlet-Packard. It is stated in their own Code of conduct that “Foxconn is committed to uphold the human rights of workers, and to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community and applicable laws and regulations”. As a result they have made a statement that they are liable for ensuring their workers are treated fairly, but this is not legally binding.
After the incident, Foxconn was pressured into finding solutions by the companies it supplied to, such as hiring thousands of new workers to reduce the amount of overtime and improving the housing provided to the workers. These improvements appear to be working since the number of suicides has reduced, as there were 4 suicides in 2011 and 1 in 2012. Statistically the rate of suicide is lower than the rest of China (22 per 100,000) and the peak of suicides in 2010 could have been due to the increased media coverage of these incidents worldwide and locally, referred to as the Werher effect. Adding the fact that the age range of the victims was between 16-25, these people were at a psychologically vulnerable age, under a vast amount of pressure to provide.
From the perspective of the engineer looking at this case using utilitarianism, humanity benefits more from the increased availability of these products, since they could be used to aid others in efforts that are beneficial to humanity.
To answer the question of whether the continued partnership is ethical for a company like Apple, moving their business to another manufacturer until the situation improves would be impractical from a utilitarian perspective. At the time the production rate was roughly 250,000 iPhones and 20,500 iPad per day so a halt in production would cost Foxconn approximately $174,8000 per day. Additionally, the current supply chain is the culmination of many years of progressive improvement in terms of efficiency and so moving the entirety of this production could cripple the company, risking many other people’s jobs. From the company’s perspective this would be an irresponsible decision.
In conclusion from the perspective of the engineer and the company it would be irresponsible of them to stop working with Foxconn since doing so would be riskier for more people’s well-being overall, compared to the well-being of a few . The proposed solution would be to ensure Foxconn continues to enforce its code of conduct and addresses increasing demand from its customers by improvements in efficiency rather than a deterioration in employee welfare.
For: The cost is too damn high
Foxconn is a manufacturer with a distinct set of rules; absolute obedience, discipline and a severe punishment system combined into an almost militarised form of management. Although this method can be highly effective at improving the efficiency of production, it has an obvious negative effect on the workers. In a report by the BBC, an anonymous Foxconn worker said “Workers don’t have much time to communicate with each other and they feel quite lonely. We work six days a week with one day off and every day we work two hours overtime.” This isolation and level of constant work has lead to deterioration in their mental health and as a result they felt that suicide was their only option. Professional engineers, using a deontological framework of ethics, should hold the health and safety of these individuals paramount. So it would follow that engineers should be responsible for making sure that the methods used to make their products are ethical and moral.
Foxconn did take emergency measures after the incident. Such as placing safety nets around the roofs and on both sides of corridors, ensuring all the windows were covered with wire and locked tight. These measures may make it more difficult for people to commit suicide but as a 16-years-old female employee told a journalist “I feel really constrained at Foxconn since the suicides. Now everywhere there are safety nets, they’ve set up these nets everywhere. It gives you a really constricted feeling. I’m depressed.” These measures obviously fail to improve the environment these individuals work in and it may have even made things worse. The result is that they are now left almost caged like animals which is a demeaning situation.
The worst part of this dire situation is that the Foxconn Human Resources Director attempted to make workers sign a no-suicide pledge, containing a disclaimer. The disclaimer read as follows “Should any injury or death arise for which Foxconn cannot be held accountable (including suicides and self-mutilation), I hereby agree to hand over the case to the company’s legal and regulatory procedures. I myself and my family members will not seek extra compensation above that required by the law.” This was a blatant attempt to ensure that responsibility for future suicides was placed on the individual worker, and not on Foxconn. This kind of behaviour is irresponsible and gives more evidence as to why something needs to be done.
Therefore, engineers at Apple/HP should require Foxconn to remove the safety nets and spend more time communicating with workers. If Foxconn cannot take care of the mental health of workers and give respects to workers. Engineers should advise Apple/HP to sever partnership between Foxconn and Apple/HP altogether.
65: Robert Hemsley