Where Does My Stuff Come From?

Why did I write yesterday’s story?

The idea came from something I first saw on the Daily Show. In the segment, Jon Stewart describes the conditions at the “Fear Factory”. Workers are underpaid, forced to work long shifts in total silence. They live in dorms with 13-14 strangers in a 10′ x 10′ room, with bunks stacked 6 high.

Some of the workers jumped from the top of the building rather than continuing to work under those conditions. Their supervisors put up nets to catch them. The nets didn’t work.

This is the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, and they make most of the electronics we know and love.

Foxconn has contracts with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, ASUS, HP, Samsung, Toshiba, the list goes on. They make the iPad, the iPhone, the Xbox, the Kindle I bought my dad for Christmas, and maybe even the netbook I’m posting from. My Kindle Fire was not made by Foxconn, but they have a contract for the new 10.1” version.

I knew my stuff came from China, and so did you. I think we all have this idea that conditions aren’t quite as good as America, but that things are basically the same. We envision large efficient machines, or thousands of workers in lab coats. We even resent these people, for taking the job from us.

I type for a living. I write code, e-mails, short-stories, novels and this blog. I’m  at a risk for carpal-tunnel or some other repetitive stress injury if I’m not careful, but that’s probably a long way off. By 26, my current age, many of these workers have ruined their hands forever. Their hands shake like someone in their seventies with crippling arthritis. And then they’re out of a job.

When I first heard these stories it hit me like a punch in the gut. I’m not an Apple guy, but I do love my gadgets as much as the next person. I like that the price of these toys has been coming down. I even have a little of the tech-geek alpha male in me, wanting to have the latest thing and the widest array of technology. I’m one of the reasons these people have to work harder than I can possibly imagine. I’m complicit in their suffering, whether I knew it or not.

Apple is investigating the working conditions at this and other factories. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the other companies that partner with Foxconn do the same. I could be comforted by this. I could think Apple will do the right thing, and that I don’t need worry about it. I think that’s what a lot of us do. We hear about something that makes us angry, maybe a little guilty, and we let it go at the first hint of something being done about it, with no follow-through.

That’s not good enough.

My wife and I have formed a Facebook group, Consumers for Fairness in Manufacturing and Labor (CFML). Our challenge is simple:

1) Pick ONE electronic device you own (cell phone, eReader, tablet, computer, etc.). It can be your latest gadget, or a device you use all the time.

2) Find out where your device was made.

3) Find out how much the workers who made your device are paid, the hours they work, and the conditions they work and live in.

4) Post what you’ve learned on the Facebook page, this blog or share it with your friends.

We’ll be on a lighter note tomorrow on the blog, but I really hope you’ll take some time to learn more about this. Thanks in advance!

NOTE: I’ve been learning a lot about this subject the last couple of weeks, and have posted a number of links in the Facebook group. One that I would highlight in particular is “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory”, which was featured recently on This American Life. The NY Times featured Foxconn as well in an article last Thursday found here.

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