Apple, Amazon contractor boss calls workers “animals”

Taiwanese tycoon seems to deride laborers with zoo comment

By Nicholas Nehamas

Foxconn head Terry Gou during a 2010 investigation into suicides at a Foxconn factory. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

The chairman of the Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, Terry Gou, referred to his workers as “animals” during an appearance at the Taipei City Zoo on Friday. The remark caused an uproar. He later apologized and said the media had distorted his comments.

Gou’s gaffe came at a bad time for Foxconn, which has been accused of maintaining sweatshop-like conditions in its factories and discriminating against employees who complain.

Early this year, 300 employees threatened to jump off the roof of a Foxconn factory in Wuhan if they were not given raises. In 2010, at least fourteen Foxconn workers committed suicide.

 

Instead of improving working conditions, Foxconn installed safety nets at many of its plants.

Yet the controversy has not dulled China’s appetite for Foxconn products, including Apple’s wildly popular iPhone 4S. On the morning of January 13th, thousands waited outside Apple’s flagship store in Beijing, eager to get their hands on the new phone. Many had been waiting all night. When the store announced it could not handle such a massive crowd and would not open its doors, a riot broke out. Angry customers hurled eggs at the store’s windows and fought police before being dispersed.

A Foxconn factory, with safety nets, in Langfang, China. (Reuters/Jason Lee)

In response, Apple temporarily stopped selling the iPhone 4s in China.

Now, the story is starting to hit America’s mainstream media. On January 6th, This American Life aired “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” On January 16th, The Daily Show ran a segment called “Fear Factory.” Two days ago, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Apple’s decision to move its manufacturing operations from the US to China.

Foxconn produces around 40% of the world’s consumer electronic devices, including Apple’s iPad, the Amazon Kindle, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and many more. It’s an open question whether employees are better off in Foxconn’s factories than they would be in China’s grim rice paddies. But one thing is for sure: the animals of Taipei Zoo won’t be going on suicide watch anytime soon.

  • http://twitter.com/WakingCall Susan

    until Apple moves from China I will never buy another Apple product, and will encourage others to do the same… boycott Apple! Steve Jobs was not a hero… if he permitted this…but a corporate greed-ite like the other greed-ites. Shamefull!

    • kitten ku’upio

      Yeah but the occutards think that apple is to die for. I guess it is :/

    • nicholas nehamas

      yes I really wonder what this story will do for steve jobs’s reputation. the media has created a true personality-cult around him over the last several years. has anyone read walter isaacson’s best-selling biography about jobs? i wonder if he addresses claims of worker abuse. somehow I doubt it.

  • Gzmillington

    As long as bottom-line profits trump human dignity and basic rights, the Chinese sweat-shop labor model will exist wherever the economically desperate will work for a pittance. Shame on Apple and all other American companies that greedily exploit the poor and the ignorant!

    • nicholas nehamas

      Nike was forced to clean up their act in the 90′s. see my link in one of the above comments. do you think sustained public pressure can put an end to apple/foxconn’s abuse of workers?

      the really scary thing is that foxconn claims their factories are safer and more humane than many of their competitors in china. I hope reporters can get access to these other plants and see if the company’s claim is true.

      also, foxconn apparently has plants all over the world including India, Mexico and Brazil. what are conditions like in these factories?

  • nicholas nehamas

    if consumers put pressure on Apple they will be forced to change. It happened to Nike in the 1990′s and although their record isn’t perfect it has improved greatly: http://cnnmon.ie/z4zNNx

    “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years” – said a former Apple exec to the NYT: http://nyti.ms/xRyIDD

    I’m writing this comment on my Apple labtop. Anyone have good suggestions for what my next computer should be???

    • kitten ku’upio

      I never liked apple. Mostly because of its arrogance toward consumers. By something else, anything else.

    • http://www.serendipit-e.com/blog Chris Boese

      Linux and all open source software might be the way to go. Throwing your lot with open systems, distributed systems, open code, open architecture– that is one way to wage a significant protest against the labor policies (and system architecture policies) of ALL of our electronics manufacturers.

      On a related note, I did hear something on NPR this morning about Intel taking the bold stance of building a MASSIVE new plant in the US.

      Here’s one link to it: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2011-03-28-intel-manufacturing.htm

      Seems like the NPR story said the massive new plant wouldn’t actually employ a lot of people, however.

      Here’s the story: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/26/145885692/on-the-road-obama-pushes-u-s-energy-manufacturing

      So, 10K people currently employed. A boatload working on the massive construction project. But only a thousand or so will work inside the plant, around a bunch of robots, and they will all need highly specialized training, the kind that the US education system hardly prepares people for, even at the normal post-secondary level.

      Contrast that to Foxconn, where there is NO automation at all, not even standard, industrial revolution-style automation. Why? Because human labor there is SO MUCH CHEAPER. Which is why there is so much silence on the line. No talking allowed, but also, no machines. Just fingers and opposable thumbs.

      Much is made of the “extreme flexibility” at the Foxconn plant, a claim that no other plant anywhere could staff up and change directions at the speed Apple required, except at Foxconn.

      This whole episode is narrated in today’s APM Marketplace, here: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/tech/apples-china-supply-chain-exposed

      “Ryssdal: Let me explore that pace of innovation point because that is at the core of the article that came out yesterday and the one that came out over the weekend as well. And that is how quickly companies expect manufacturers to be able to turn to get what consumers want. And you tell a great story about the glass in the iPhone and when Steve Jobs said ‘I want a glass screen, make it happen.’

      Duhigg: Absolutely. And they were able to turn that around, overhaul their manufacturing process, and within 48 hours get these glass screens into workers’ hands and start producing finished iPhones because there’s this enormous flexibility. These factories can hire 3,000 people overnight. It’s an amazing scale.”

      Right. But how does that affect Intel? Robots and 1,000 people? They can’t change on a dime. That would be like changing the model of a car on a Detroit assembly line. Robots can be programmed, but industrial robots have limited motions.

      So no plants are being built in the US for HUMAN labor on any kind of China-scale. Humans in the US (or anywhere else in the developed world) have difficulty living under the exploitive, slavery-style conditions as we find at Foxconn (which actually has the highest pay and best conditions of most of China, they claim, at least). NOBODY should build plants like that for HUMAN labor anywhere! Because HUMANS HAVE A BASIC RIGHT NOT TO BE SLAVES.

      Imagine that. The scale of Foxconn and their ilk will be a dark smear on the conscience of the history of our age. People will look back on us in the future the way we look back on Nazi work camps, the Warsaw Ghetto. In horror. And wonder how the people on the planet slept at night, to the hum of their electronic toys.

      • nicholas nehamas

        great post, Chris. thanks for all the info.I was surprised it took so long for major media outlets to pick up on this story. This American Life and the Daily show were on it weeks ago!

        do you think a consumer boycott of apple is realistic? perhaps organized over facebook/twitter and other internet sites? or will apple’s PR arm and the quality of their products blind america to the horrific conditions in which they are made?

        • http://www.serendipit-e.com/blog Chris Boese

          I personally can’t boycott Apple. It’s hard to explain. I do hope others will.

          But Apple is the computer that saved/changed my life. My parents still have their Apple II. My Mac SE is still in the closet. It’s like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for me. This past Christmas, my dad and I both (unknowingly) got each other the Steve Jobs bio. And we both agree Steve was an asshole (as it comes out in the book).

          I even went and saw The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at The Public Theater in NYC, months before the story came out about Foxconn. I was really glad to see it come out. But I’m sort of a geek like the guy in the one-man show. We can’t NOT have our Apples.

          But other people should raise O Holy Hell! Really. I sure do hope they do. I’d have to live in a cabin in the woods and eat worms if I did. I would completely lose my livelihood.

  • Anonymous

    This may be Apple’s “Microsoft Moment,” when public perception changes from it being a scrappy hero to it being a kind of bully. Microsoft was the anti-IBM until it started trying to kill Netscape in the 1990s. There had been lots of warning signs about it, but none of them stuck, until all of a sudden it did.

  • Anonymous

    now it works, thanks sir, danny bloom in taiwan

  • Jbatanda

    Over 155,000 people have signed on an online petition calling on Apple to ensure that the workers at the Chinese factory are treated better. Read more at BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16832106#TWEET70913

  • Anonymous

    Why the subterfuge???,Taiwan is not China(not yet anyway!) so define your rhetoric clearly,you give the impression of China and Taiwan as being the one and same.I heard the reason that launch day at the store was cancelled because scalpers had paid the rent a crowd to throw eggs so their business would flourish,maybe neither story is true(surprise,surprise),it could have been a demonstration against Apple for their abhorrent behaviour in these concentration camps(no way! it could’nt could it????),they just love their i-phones so much(sounds so realistic).

    • Anna

      Actually I’m going to agree with your thought that people were in fact waiting in line to scalp the spots upon the store opening…funny thing though…Siri doesn’t work there…