Worker Suicides Wipe Away The iPhone’s Smile

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Misery in the tech supply chain will spread if left unchecked, says Andrew Donoghue

When I first used my iPhone, I actually smiled. Recent events connected with the device may change that.

Smilling at the iPhone might sound like a sad admission but it’s probably a common reaction. Apple has worked hard to make sure that the user has a very special relationship with the device. It’s all about what the company leaves out, rather than what it includes. Too much functionality actually detracts from usability, according to iPhone guru Jonathan Ive.

Just as an expert Radio DJ can give his audience the impression he is speaking to them alone, Apple has worked the same magic with its handset. You might be surrounded by other iPhone users, but it still feels as if the device was made specifically for you.

So It is blackly ironic that a device that engenders so much positivity in its users has been linked to negativity of the worst kind amongst the people who produce it.

The latest in a spate of apparent suicides at Taiwanese technology manufacturer Foxconn was reported this week, when a man fell to his death from a building on the company’s campus. The incident is the eighth death by falling this year and there have been a further two cases in which the victims survived. This so-called suicide cluster has resulted in unwanted media attention on the facility and the compaies which it serves including Apple, Dell and HP.

Suicide Cluster

The tech industry has always been dogged by reports of poor working conditions in the facilities that actually produce the technology. Companies such as Apple, Intel and IBM are keen to appropriate the images associated with manufacturing tech – engineers in white coats and those trade-mark Intel bunny suits – but the Foxconn incident and others of its kind highlight the reality of high-tech manufacturing. It’s not happy bearded techies tinkering with soldering irons in some Californian campus but thousands of low-skilled foreign workers being cycled through de-humanising Asian mega-factories.

Apple was linked to the Foxconn incidents – perhaps unfairly as Microsoft has faced similar problems – after an episode last year. A 25-year-old engineer from the facility Sun Danyong died following a fall from his 12th-floor apartment. Danyong was linked to the loss of a fourth-generation iPhone and, shortly before his death, apparently sent a text to a friend claiming that security guards from Foxconn had beaten him during an interrogation over the missing device.

The latest death at Foxconn is particularly bad timing for Apple, coming as it does shortly before the expected debut of the iPhone 4G at the company’s 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The latest update to the iPhone has already been embroiled in a legal tussle with tech site Gizmodo, after the publication received a prototype of the device. Police raided the home of the site’s editor, with a predictable backlash from critics citing invasion of privacy on the part of law enforcement and Apple.

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