Your Thoughts on Recent Articles about Apple, Foxconn, and China?


This week, I've been reading and listening to a lot of articles about working conditions at the Foxconn facilities in China. These stories are primarily focused on Apple, but nearly any computer, gadget, or mobile device is made there, ranging from iPhones to Android tablets to my Kindle Fire.

I have a longer blog post teed up that I might post tomorrow – a combination of some analysis with a bit of emotion, which I'm trying to temper.

The items that I've read (and you might want to read or listen too) include:

There are plenty of documented working conditions, safety problems, child labor, etc. that are deplorable. It makes you stop and think about the human cost of our cheap shiny gadgets. It makes you think about the decline of American manufacturing (remembering that Apple used to assemble Macs in Fremont, California).

I've been tweeting about this a lot and I've learned much from my followers. “Prison labor” is probably not the right term to use for the Foxconn plants, as employees can quit (and high turnover has been a concern and cost for Foxconn), but some of the working and living conditions sure seem prison-like.

Also interesting are comments from readers of a Chinese-language version of last weekend's NYT piece: “Chinese Readers on the ‘iEconomy.”

It was pointed out that I haven't “been to the gemba” to see first hand, having never worked in China. But, I'm reading first-hand accounts of those who have been there. Granted, those people might have “an agenda,” but who doesn't?

Another frequent comment is “You might think Foxconn is bad, but other factories there are far worse.” Others frequently say, “Well, the alternatives – working on a farm and being poor and starving – aren't good, so working in that factory is actually a leg up for Chinese workers.” But, I think it's a false choice that the only two alternatives starving on a communal farm and working in unsafe factory conditions.

So what are your thoughts and reactions to these articles? Do you have first hand experiences to share? I'd like to keep the discussion fact-based, but feel free to share your emotions about this as well – as it's not just a business story or an engineering story, it's a human story.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

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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. Reading the NY Times site on the Chinese response shows that many people don’t blame Apple. They blame the Chinese government but, almost in the same breath, ask what would happen if the workers were limited to 8 hours and made higher wages, or consumers boycotted Apple? The answer they see is back to the farms where life is very, very hard. Because they see no viable alternative.

    We should not forget that we fought a four-year bloody civil war over the issue of slavery 150 years ago. Slavery was thought to be normal to provide the goods of the day. Foxconn is not slavery. People are there by choice.

    We may say it is a shame that the alternative to Foxconn is the farms. So, what can we do about it? Nothing that I know of. The current conditions are just a fact of a culture moving through their own developmental phases. I chuckled when one Chinese writer said he wants to see them do the high value thinking work, like we do in the United States, and send the production to Africa. Japan’s answer to labor (with their imploding population because they allow near zero immigration) is robots. Guess we’ll see how that works out. They are closing many elementary schools every year.

    I think we need to be far, far less judgmental about how other people live their lives in response to their unique situation. They will figure it out. It does not need to be an American or Western solution. We are in the throes of our own contentious problems.

    Cambodia lost over one million people during the Khmer Rouge slaughter. The KR are nowhere to be seen today and WE didn’t intervene (the Vietnamese did, however). If we had not gone into Iraq, which is right now imploding back into their religious warfare, we would have saved thousands of lives, tens of thousands of US soldiers’ minds and bodies, and a trillion dollars in US treasure that we desperately need to rebuild our own infrastructure. Ditto Afghanistan—it is not worth one single American life to sort out their society, they have to do it. Ditto Kosovo, and etc. We do not need to be the world policeman or moral authority. It is breaking our backs.

    When the world’s on the Way,
    They use horses to draw manure.
    When the world gets off the Way,
    They breed warhorses on the common.

    The greatest evil: wanting more.
    The worst luck: discontent.
    Greed is the curse of life.

    To know enough’s enough
    Is enough to know.

    Lao Tzu, #46, translated by Ursula LeGuin

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the “let countries figure it out themselves,” as we don’t need to be paternalistic (right term?) toward other countries.

      But there’s a difference between a completely internal problem (Cambodia, Iraq) and a situation that already has heavy involvement of American companies. American companies help create these situations where workers in China are being hurt or killed, and we as American customers of these products (myself included) have a role. So the big question / debate is what responsibility do we have?

      It’s somewhere between zero and 100%. We’re not fully responsible (blame the Chinese government) but we’re not blameless.

      p.s. That comment about China hoping to send the crappy factory environments to Africa was jaw-dropping.

      • Mark,
        American companies create the situations here, in the USA, where workers are hurt or killed, every year. So does the government when it fails to create a workable health care system and people die all the time from preventable causes. Or police and firefighters die in the line of duty, frequently from preventable causes that intensive training would largely ameliorate but probably not fully solve. The fact is, life is risky. Very risky, actually.

        As a general statement, I am for self-responsibility and I see that every day the decisions I make create the future I will live in. And, then there is the issue of Fate, pure and simple. (Not fatalism). Our lives are much more in the hands of Fate than we would like to admit. In the NW with our ice storm, a man was backing his car out of his garage when an ice-laden tree came down and crushed the car, killing him. Pure Fate.

        Thus, I think we should be leaving folks in the world alone to deal with their own problems and their own fates.

        That said, I’m not for isolationism, we also need to make it very clear that attacks on America will be met with overwhelming, annihilating force so you’d best think twice about it. Our core problem is that we are unwilling to use the force we have. That’s a whole other discussion.

        Best regards,


        • Is America perfectly safe? Are our workplaces perfectly safe? Of course not. But they’re way better than Foxconn and we don’t have to be perfect to want Foxconn and the suppliers to be way better.

          Life is very risky. We don’t have to make it riskier by intentionally choosing dangerous chemicals (n-hexane) to clean iPhone screens when there are cheap, safer alternatives (rubbing alcohol).

      • PS: I failed to deal with your point on how the American companies are intertwined with China’s developmental process. What’s the alternative? No development? No helping them to develop? Seems to me it is basically an issue like drugs. If the US population wasn’t so psychologically (and I would say spiritually) bankrupt, there would be no huge drug draw thru Mexico and the resulting deaths and corruption. If we didn’t love our toys and gadgets, there would be no factories in China and they would still be on their farms or developing their own technology. Guess we can’t have globalization without pain and angst, I think. Never has happened yet, in all the history of man.

        • The alternative is that Apple’s leaders (and Amazon’s and Dell’s and HP’s, etc.) show LEADERSHIP and help make the world a better place rather than making profits on the backs of the people in poor countries, to use “well they’d be worse off without us” as an excuse.

          If they developed with safer working conditions, Terry Gao would make less money as Foxconn’s CEO (how does one man get so rich in a “communist” country?) and Apple’s profits would be a bit lower. We’d still get our toys.

  2. I think this quote is telling about how Apple *could* do more:

    “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

    The system works for Apple. They need to find a system that works for them that’s also better for workers.

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