My iPod was made in a Prison?


iPod City: Apple criticized for factory conditions

There was a fairly shocking story in the Sunday Mail, a London newspaper, about the iPod factory conditions in China. The full text of the article isn't available online, but I was able to read it thanks to a reporter friend (and I don't want to get him in copyright trouble by posting the whole thing here). The link above has a summary and some photos.

The factories in question are, of course, not run by Apple. Apple is a “brand,” not a manufacturing company. The production is outsourced to generic companies like Foxconn, a company that claims to have 1 million workers (no typo).

If these conditions are true, and I'm sure they are, what is Apple's responsibility to make sure workers are treated humanely? It's not fair to single out Apple, since they are following general industry trends.

When I go to the gym tonight, I have plenty to think about while my iPod plays. What is our responsibility as consumers? As manufacturing people?

Here is how the iPod factories sound like a prison to me:

  • Workers live in dormitories on the site, 100 to a room, arriving with a few possessions and a bucket to wash their clothes. The accommodation may be free, but it comes at a cost no one outside the plant is allowed to visit the workers.
  • ‘The job here is so-so,' Zang Lan says. ‘We have to work too hard and I am always tired. It's like being in the army. They make us stand still for hours. If we move we are punished by being made to stand still for longer.
  • Police not security guards are stationed on all gates, studiously checking those entering and leaving the site to thwart rivals intent on industrial espionage.
  • ‘We have to work overtime if we are told to and can only go back to the dormitories when our boss gives us permission,' says Zang Lan. ‘

So yes I realize the world ain't fair. Call me a Pollyanna, if you will, or call me naive. But, come one, we have to be able to treat people better than this. We love cheap products, but we hate losing jobs. As lean people, we can hope that other companies would embrace Toyota's “respect for people” mentality.

American companies used to treat people this way, but conditions improved. You have to give credit to labor unions for that, as much as we love to criticize unions. I can't imagine there's any hope of China progressing beyond the current conditions, given the totalitarian state and the abundence of willing workers.

Think of it this way, if you're an American factory plant manager: How much money could you make if you paid workers such a tiny wage? Would you ALSO have to rely on slave labor and prison labor type tactics? That's a “double threat” advantage for the Chinese contract manufacturers — not only do we pay lousy, but we treat people horribly as well! You'd think that with such cheap wages, they could “afford” slightly less draconian “management” methods. Requiring slave wages and brutal conditions to make a buck — I nominate the Chinese as “worst managers in the world.”

Apple is not commenting. I'm sure they are embarrassed. Either they knew about the conditions or they were unaware. Either way, it's a shameful situation.

Question for the readers and engineers out there: how much touch labor would you expect to be in an iPod? The Mail article says the parts in a $149 iPod Nano cost about $75. How much labor content is in there, I wonder? Another question — who really believes that they have 200,000 workers at the iPod factory?

Other article links: Apple Insider, Slashdot, Ars Technica Discussion, Wired

Other blog postings

This blog has an interesting idea, Apple can offer the equivalent of Starbucks “Fair Trade” coffee. You pay more, but you know people were paid a decent wage and had good working and environmental conditions. You'd think the “U2” edition of the iPod would already be this way, given Bono's general do-good-ness. But is it practical? Wouldn't a marketing appeal like that do MORE to highlight the bad conditions at the “regular price” factory?

As others have pointed out, how ironic that Apple used Gandhi and Cesar Chavez  in their “Think Different” ads!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Yes, it’s wrong. But unlike the old China, they don’t have to work there, they choose to. If they don’t like it, they can leave. But they all willingly put up with it because it pays better than anything else they could do. Wrong? Perhaps. Their choice? Yes.

  2. Can they really leave? I’ve heard stories of people saying “OK, I made enough, back to the farm town”, but I bet you have fewer options if you work at the glamorous iPod factory. You certainly can’t leave after 12 hours in a day, if you’re tired.

    Apple has the money (and I thought the backbone) to try to do better than the rest of the electronics industry.


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