June 8, 2011

No news about accident at Apple's "hell factory"

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Last year we reported extensively on Apple supplier Foxconn. which manufactures the iPhone and iPad, as well as products for Sony, HP, and other American firms, at factories in China. Foxconn had been called “a hell factory” after a string of worker suicides were reported in the American press. The result was a long period of bad publicity for Apple and some further investigation. According to at least one detailed report—by Wired‘s Joel Johnson—things at Foxconn aren’t nearly as bad as it initially seemed. For one thing, Foxconn turned out to employ a million people, a fact that, though not excusing the questionable factory conditions, put reports of seventeen employee suicides into context.

Foxconn also replied. It “announced big wage increases to address employee discontent,” according to this Wall Street Journal report, and added netting around the factory floor to prevent further jumpers. According to the Wired piece mentioned above, the nets “carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.” The company also forced workers “to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to ‘treasure their lives.'”

In late May, however, news began breaking about a serious accident at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China: on May 20th an explosion in a company workshop killed three workers and injured 15 others. According to a report at GIZMODO, the accident “halted production in the iPad 2 assembly line”; another blog followed up with news that the research firm IHS iSuppli estimated “Apple may face a production loss of 500,000 iPads” after the explosion.

Two weeks after the explosion, however, according to this Wall Street Journal report:

[T]here are only preliminary reports of what happened. Apple doesn’t even publicly acknowledge the iPad is made in Chengdu. What is known is that one of the more primitive of industrial problems sparked the explosion: A metal polishing shop was improperly ventilated or cleaned, dust collected in the air or on surfaces, and then, in a moment of considerable violence, the dust ignited.

It’s peculiar that there hasn’t been more info—or even a demand for more info. As even the anti-labor Wall Street Journal points out, “If Apple ordered up a batch of its iPad computers to meet surging market demand and an explosion in the workshop killed three workers and injured 15 others, an army of regulators, cops and plaintiffs lawyers would descend on the company to demand an accounting.”

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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