Last Friday Tech in Asia posted the first episode of their new podcast, which I finally got around to listening to the other day.
Reading through the site’s news feed can be a frustrating experience, as yours truly is far more interested in Chinese smartphone OEMs than the TechCrunch-style features on Asian startups whose products I may never end up using. Nevertheless, Tech in Asia, along with other sites like GizChina can, with a bit of patience, provide some real insight into the world’s more advanced mobile markets.
The first proper Tech in Asia podcast is no different. With the provocative title “Should you feel guilty for owning a smartphone?”, it features a frank discussion about Chinese factories with Kevin Slaten of China Labor Watch. It’s a subject I’ve written about before, and likely one that the major OEMs would rather you not know about. This post aims to fix that.
Some highlights from the podcast:
As of 2011, 70-90% of all electronics sold worldwide are manufactured in China. With smartphones specifically, if the final assembly isn’t done in a Chinese factory then many of the core components (camera, etc.) are likely produced there.
Pay rates in Chinese factories have gone up, but haven’t matched the rate of inflation. Indeed, the only way a typical factory worker can make a living wage (plus some money to send home) is to accept many hours of overtime—which happens to jibe perfectly with the lead-up to your typical worldwide smartphone launch.
A hundred hours or more of overtime per month invariably leads to exhaustion and, in multiple documented cases, death. Deaths also occur from exposure to hazardous chemicals and a lack of safety training. Workers as young as 15 have died on iPhone assembly lines.
Students are working in factories because their schools send them there over the summer months when they’re not in class, sometimes at a lower wage or no wage at all. Factory work is often a required component of a vocational or high school curriculum. There is at least one documented case of a marketing major being sent to work in a factory in order to graduate.
In addition to the students, some 270 million migrant workers staff factories in China. Some have chosen factory over farm in the rural area where they’re from, but for many there is no available work at all back home. And because of their migrant status there are often no available benefits for them in the city where their factory employer is located.
So should we feel guilty for owning a smartphone? Not necessarily; a boycott of the technology that outnumbers the human population isn’t likely going to happen anytime soon. But there are some steps you can take to effect change:
- Support NGOs (like China Labor Watch) that are working to improve conditions in Chinese factories;
- Contact your government representative and ask them why the trade laws in your country permit it to do business with Chinese factories in their current state;
- Contact your smartphone OEM and let them know that these issues are important to you!