The iPad Suicides

Should you blame yourself for all those deaths at the Chinese electronics factory?

Can you enjoy your iPad when its assembly-line workers are killing themselves?

Last week, the Chinese media got hold of a contract that the electronics manufacturing company Foxconn recently asked its workers to sign. Call it a non-suicide pact —“I will not harm myself or others,” they were asked to declare. The contract directed employees who are troubled by work and life to reach out to relatives or to call Foxconn’s “worker care center.” The letter also stipulated that from here on out, Foxconn would not be liable to pay damages to the families of suicide victims. The clause sparked outrage in the Chinese media because, according to news reports, Foxconn currently pays out about $16,000 to families of workers who kill themselves. That amounts to about 10 years of the minimum salary at a Foxconn plant—10 years of what is by all accounts a physically and psychologically brutal job of putting together products for Apple, Dell, HP, Microsoft, Nintendo, and other electronics companies.

In other words, according to the grim math of the global gadget-making industry, Foxconn’s workers are worth more dead than alive. Those post-death payments seem like one plausible explanation for the suicides of at least 10 young Foxconn workers this year. (Several more have survived suicide attempts.) The number of suicides might not be statistically abnormal—the company does, after all, employ 800,000 workers—but the deaths do follow a clear pattern. Namely, Foxconn exployees are killing themselves in the most gruesomely public way: Nearly all of them have died by jumping from tall buildings on Foxconn’s campus.

There are two ways for the world’s gadget-buying public to look at these deaths. The first is to think that Foxconn, Apple, and the rest of the world’s tech companies must get to the bottom of why workers are killing themselves and stop the suicides from happening. The second is more personal. If you’ve got an iPod, iPhone, iPad, Mac Mini, Xbox, Wii, or one of a number of generic PCs, it’s likely your gadget was made at Foxconn. It can be argued, then, that we are complicit in what’s going on at Foxconn. In that case, it’s our job—your job and my job—to help stop it.

How are we culpable? It’s true that the iPad is the product of hardware and software engineers who live in Silicon Valley. Without Chinese labor, though, Apple couldn’t have made the iPad, iPhone, iPod, or pretty much anything else it’s sold in the last decade. The same is true for every other hardware company. The computer industry only works because there are people in this world who are willing to spend 12 hours a day assembling gadgets in return for about $300 a month—less than the retail price of most of those gadgets in the Western world. Yes, it’s easy to blame Apple for this state of affairs. But would the globe’s electronic giants be making their products at Foxconn if customers expressed moral misgivings about how our gadgets are made? The truth is we don’t know, because gadget consumers haven’t made a peep.

Foxconn and its supporters have floated several arguments to absolve the company of blame for the suicides. Foxconn’s factories operate like dystopian cities—the campuses house tens or hundreds of thousands of workers each, and everything that they need is provided by the company. Most employees are in their late teens or early 20s, and many are migrants from rural China. All kinds of social problems can arise in these close quarters, Foxconn points out: romantic troubles, homesickness, substance abuse, financial worries. The company says it’s those realities of life, not the conditions in the company’s factories, that have led to the deaths of its workers.

That’s not implausible. Reports from inside Foxconn describe the place as clean and well-run. Foxconn pays its workers legal wages, and it provides what many describe as better living conditions than at other manufacturing plants in China. Perhaps that’s why, prior to this spate of suicides, the moral outrage directed at tech companies wasn’t the same as that once leveled at clothing companies like Nike. Foxconn doesn’t look like a sweatshop.

Yet reports from workers say it operates like one. People are under tremendous pressure to keep working; everyone works overtime, and there is little support for employees who experience social or psychological difficulties. After the most recent suicides, China Labor Watch, a watchdog group based in New York, interviewed 25 workers at Foxconn. The group asked employees to speculate on the causes of suicide. Most blamed the intense workload. “We are extremely tired, with tremendous pressure,” workers on a computer assembly line told CLW. “We finish one step in every 7 seconds, which requires us to concentrate and keep working and working. We work faster even than the machines. Every shift, we finish 4,000 Dell computers, all while standing up. We can accomplish these assignments through collective effort, but many of us feel worn out.”

Things are much worse for workers who find themselves in trouble with the company. Last July, a prototype of an upcoming iPhone went missing at the company. Managers suspected Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old who worked in the logistics department, of perpetrating the theft. Danyong denied the charge. He reportedly told friends that he was harassed and beaten by Foxconn’s security team. Shortly after he was interrogated, he texted his girlfriend: “Dear, I’m sorry. Go back home tomorrow. I ran into some problems. Don’t tell my family. Don’t contact me. I’m begging you for the first time. Please do it! I’m sorry.” The next morning, he jumped to his death from the 12th story of a company-owned apartment building.

Apple, Dell, HP, Nintendo, and others have responded to the deaths with expressions of sadness and vows to investigate practices at Foxconn. But don’t hold your breath for them to do anything more than that. At the moment, these companies have no financial incentive to force Foxconn to improve practices at its plants. On Monday Apple reported that it has sold 2 million iPads in two months. The company can’t keep up with demand; Apple CEO Steve Jobs says Apple is “working hard to build enough iPads for everyone.” And where will those new iPads come from? Foxconn.

So what’s the responsible thing for Apple customers to do? I’m not proposing that we boycott Apple or any other electronics company over outsourcing. That wouldn’t work, because we’d end up boycotting everything. Americans depend on low-paid foreign workers to build our computers in the same way we depend on petro-state dictators to supply us with oil—we might hold our nose as we do it, but we can’t opt out without modern life grinding to a halt.

That doesn’t mean we’re stuck with Foxconn staying the way it is. Apple has been quite responsive to shifts in consumer ethics over the past few years. Earlier this decade, environmental groups targeted Apple for its spotty record. The company’s first response was to deny every accusation, but that soon became untenable; the perception that Apple wasn’t green was affecting its public image. At that point Apple did something smart—it decided to turn a disadvantage into a selling point. The company rolled out a progressive environmental plan, and Jobs now touts Apple’s greenness every time he releases a new product. (Greenpeace now ranks Apple’s environmental record in the middle of the pack among tech companies.)

Here’s what you can do: Next time you visit an Apple Store, ask an employee about where the iPad is made. Ask about the suicides there, and if Apple has pressed Foxconn to improve conditions at the plant. Are you an Apple shareholder? Attend the company’s annual meeting and ask executives whether their production practices are sustainable over the long term.

Or send an e-mail to Steve Jobs, who’s taken to responding to some complaints. When a customer asked him about the suicides last week, Jobs replied by defending Foxconn—”Although every suicide is tragic, Foxconn’s suicide rate is well below the China average”—but added that Apple is working on the problem. “We are all over this,” he said. The e-mailer didn’t understand what he meant, so Jobs clarified, “It’s an American expression that means this has our full attention.”

As customers, let’s make sure to hold him to that.

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