The human cost of your iPad and iPhone: child labor and poisoning the environment

We covered Apple earlier, but there’s a lot more to the story than just loss of U.S. jobs.

Props to the New York Times for making the “human cost” point a feature story, and making it so well. Given the Tabloid Saint status of Steve Jobs these days (Tabloid Saint: He of whom no ill can be publicly spoken), this is quite a brave act.

But yes, children, there’s a human cost to your iPad, your iPhone, your iLife. And it’s not a small one.

The article’s overview (my emphasis):

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. … However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning [pdf].

“If Apple was warned, and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” said Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advises the United States Labor Department.

The whole article is eye-opening and painful.

But maybe not eye-opening at all. Let’s look at just two pieces of it:

Piece 1 — I highlighted a short list of sins in the paragraphs above. Stand till you can’t walk. Under-age workers. Ordered to use poisons as cleaning agents. There are other kinds of abuse, but just take those.

What does this add to? Pre-union conditions in U.S. manufacturing plants — 12-hour days, child labor. Standing on assembly lines until you couldn’t stand; peeing in a can because if you left the line you’d get fired. Unsafe machinery (think loss of hands and feet, arms and legs). Unsafe chemistry, including acids with toxic fumes.

Economic servitude created those conditions; and control of bought political actors (retainers) by giant economic predators (the Rockefellers and Pullmans of the world) perpetuated it.

Apple — that self-advertised faux-hip company with the secret control-freak center, just like its founder — is one of this-gen’s major predators, eaters of men, heirs to the Carnegies and the Pullmans.

(Why do I keep mentioning Pullman? Read on. The Pullman Company, like Apple, is an actual demon, not just a tabloid one; and Eugene V. Debs, its victim, is a Labor Saint.)

That’s what you do when you buy an iPad; you enable Apple in its two pronged assault. The right hand of Apple makes ads that make you look cool; the left hand of Apple lays waste to workers you’ll never be allowed to see, kills in another country.

Not to put too fine a point on it (my favorite phrase these days) — Our hipster life is bought with Dickensian blood; loss of limbs; loss of life. Or, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the middle-class in America” — at least for now. (Don’t worry, you who love justice; our day is coming, I fear.)

Piece 2 — You thought that last part was bad? How’s this — Didn’t you always know this? As I said, maybe not eye-opening at all.

Maybe it’s time for us, we as a nation, to unite behind Labor, to Occupy the Truth and act differently. Not just economically; but politically.

And isn’t it time for Labor to actually pick a side, instead of just pretending to? There may not be a ton of time left to decide.

GP


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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