Did Angry Birds kill Ms. Hou?

On June 24th, 2010, I received my second Apple iPhone, the iPhone 4. I had purchased the previous year the preceding version, and when this was announced I pre-ordered one right away. A bit before this, on April 4th, 2010, I walked in to an Apple store and bought an iPad. For what is a rather insignificant amount of money I own an amazing piece of technology. Something we could only dream of twenty years ago. I demand goods such as this, and others, to be durable, inexpensive, and readily available. I demand it as a consumer, and I expect it as a product of the modern information age.

Since 1976 1,241 people have been executed in the United States (Center, 2011). Since 1608, there have been 15,576 executions in what is now the United States(Espy & Smykla, 2002). We expect, as a modern civilization, to be safe from the most heinous of crimes. What better way to deter such crimes then the threat of death? If a man kills another man in cold blood, does he not himself forfeit his life?

These two subjects seem, at first, entirely unrelated. At most, one is an argument about a consumerism and materialism, while the other is a commentary on the philosophy of criminal rehabilitation. However, there is much more than that. What if the link between these two topics was much more literal? Is that even possible?

Foxconn, a Chinese electronics manufacturer that produces many products for Apple (Dean, 2007), has come under a tremendous amount of scrutiny over the past several years for dubious labor standards. In 2006, poor employee conditions and treatment at a Foxconn facility was brought to light (Mail on Sunday, 2006). The story triggered Apple to begin a yearly audit of its suppliers’ labor practices intended to both improve conditions as well as reduce liability(Apple, Inc, 2010).

In 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone, which led to a massive increases in production at partners such as Foxconn (Apple, Inc, (Various)).

This increase in production demands, and continual pressure to keep prices low, put additional stress on Foxconn to keep up with production. This additional stress had a very real and unfortunate side effect.

On June 18th, 2007, Ms. Hou, a 19 year old employee at Foxconn’s Shenzhen facility, hanged herself in a company bathroom. Over the next 3 years, an average of 0.6 employees committed, or attempted, suicide at the Shenzhen facility per year.

In 2010, and the production run up to the launch of the iPhone 4, things changed. In the first 8 months of 2010, 17 employees attempted suicide at the Shenzhen plant (CHAN Sze Wan & Yi, 2010). Of these 17, 13 succeeded. There has already been one suicide in 2011, Wang Ling jumped to her death on January 7th(Staff, 2011).

In 1990, Oklahoma reintroduced the death penalty for capital crimes (Cochran, 1994). The state saw an abrupt and measureable increase in homicides(Cochran, 1994). Why could this be? The theory given by the author states that “a return to the exercise of the death penalty weakens socially based inhibitions against the use of lethal force to settle disputes…”

As a society the activities we engage in become justified, they then become acceptable, and eventually become expected. We justify the killing of a person based on how we perceive the severity of their crimes. We then accept that killing for revenge is a necessary part of a civilized society. Finally, we expect that a murder be himself murdered, in order to see justice carried out.

We are careful to draw well reasoned distinctions between the two forms of killing, yet the ridiculousness of this can be shown by a simple thought exercise: What would be the charge for shooting a death row inmate in the head as the thiopental sodium is first being administered to induce coma? Surely the charge would be murder, but how can this be reconciled with the fact that the victim was in the process of being killed by state sanctioned action? The only answer is that, while we want to see those who have committed terrible crimes die for their transgressions against society, we also want to remove culpability as far away from ourselves as possible. By trying, convicting, sentencing, allowing appeals, and ultimately allowing the sate to do the deed, we are able to absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

As I write this, I’ve been listening to a podcast on my iPhone. You know, the one I bought last summer because it was newer than the less-than-a-year-old one I had? The podcast is “This Week in Tech”, a weekly program that covers the weekly technology and gadget news circuit. The participants in this program preach that the fundamental right of all people should include access to the internet. That society’s demands for newer, faster, smaller, lighter, better, cheaper technology is a march forward. It denotes progress. After all, can you not measure a species sophistication by the quality of its tools?

The story of the Foxconn suicides was broken by Jason Dean of the Wall Street Journal. He posted an article noting that several large manufacturers were going to “examine” Foxconn after a “string of deaths.” (Dean J. , 2010). The next month, and the remainder of 2010, the iPhone 4 went on to become Apple’s largest selling iPhone yet (Apple, Inc, (Various)). It seemed, that this recent discovery of these horrible tragedies easily attributed to conditions at a factory tasked with making that product, had no effect on consumer demand for the product. It is as if people, either unknowingly or uncaringly, had no issues with the human cost associated with this product, as magical and revolutionary as it may be.

The story behind these suicides implies that not only the conditions, but physical intimidation and actual assault, played a key role. If our demand for these products created a supply constraint for the vendor, and the vendor in turn leaned on the supplier, and the supplier in turn reacted by tightening the vice on its employees, ultimately leading to these deaths, are we as the consumer not somehow culpable for the outcome? Since these suicides may have been in reaction to mistreatment and threats, could that not be construed as murder?

I always try to avoid a slippery slope argument, but for this case I'll make an exception. In the case of the slave trade in the late 18th century and the early 19th century, slaves were seen as a necessity in order to supply a commodity that was highly demanded (several, actually). The dehumanization of Africans was a necessary prerequisite to accomplish this. In the example of Foxconn, we as consumers must dehumanize the employees by applying the diminishing impacts of distance, time, differences in culture, our own problems, our own immediate needs. Soon we begin to use arguments that would be familiar to Crèvecœur himself!

It’s an unpleasant thought, most assuredly, to consider that my desire to own these products could be leading to the indirect murder of young Chinese workers, or be easily compared with slavery. To be honest, I’ve never really stopped to think about it until the recent storm of news swirling around this subject. But, to be even more honest, I doubt I will change my buying behavior due to these revelations.

Why? How? How could I possibly reconcile this behavior? The truth is, I can’t. At least, I don’t feel compelled enough to come up with a justification. I don’t feel threatened by my behavior, and probably most importantly, I don’t feel judged for my behavior. Everyone has an iPhone!

This ability to look around and see if society accepts this behavior is a double edged sword. It allows a society to self-police and take corrective action, but it also allows the assignment of blame to be diffused across a great many people, reducing the individual accountability to such an extent that no one feels compelled to act.

Ultimately, we must have discussions like these, for if we never discuss it, we will never admit to ourselves that perhaps our actions are not entirely in rectitude, and that someone must be the first to truly challenge the societal norm, to clear the path for others to follow.


Works Cited

Apple, Inc. ((Various)). Financial Statements (various). Cupertino: Apple, Inc.

Apple, Inc. (2010). Supplier Responsibile, 2010 Progress Report. Cuppertino: Apple.

Center, D. P. (2011, February 17). Number of Executions by State and Region Since 1976. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/number-executions-state-and-region-1976

CHAN Sze Wan, D., & Yi, C. Y. (2010). http://sacom.hk/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/report-on-foxconn-workers-as-machines_sacom.pdf.Hong Kong: Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour.

Cochran, C. a. (1994). Deterrence, or Brutalization? Criminology .

Dean, J. (2010, May 27). Apple, H-P to Examine Asian Supplier After String of Deaths at Factory. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704026204575267603576594936.html

Dean, J. (2007, August 11). The Forbidden City of Terry Gou. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB118677584137994489.html?mod=blog

Espy, M. W., & Smykla, J. O. (2002). The ESPY File. Ann Arbor: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

Mail on Sunday. (2006, August 18). The stark reality of iPod's Chinese factories. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from Mail on Sunday: http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/news/article-401234/The-stark-reality-iPods-Chinese-factories.html

Staff. (2011, January 11). Spectre of suicide returns to Apple contractor Foxconn.South China Morning Post .