‘Information should be free” was one of the mantras of the IT revolution, promising a new era of civic openness. But though the economy of “Big Tech” is largely based on its ability to harvest and monetize your personal information, corporations display no openness in return: Google forces strict nondisclosure agreements on its business partners, YouTube and Spotify dodge transparency in how they compensate artists, and Apple … well, that brings us to filmmaker Heather White.
To document labor conditions in the heavily guarded Chinese factories where iPhones and other Apple products are assembled, White has had to recruit undercover reporters and use hidden cameras. An NYC-based activist and director fluent in Mandarin, White is currently working on a crowd-funded documentary called “Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics.” Since 2013, she and co-director Lynn Zhang have been traveling to Guangzhou and other industrial cities to investigate why Chinese workers — many underage — producing electronics were becoming gravely ill with leukemia and neurological disorders.
“We’ve run out of money several times in the process, and it has stretched into a multiyear project,” White tells The Japan Times.
The documentary has dragged on so long that many of its worker subjects are “not going to be alive when the film is completed,” she says. “It’s really been a heartbreaking experience.”
In the process of filming, White came to believe that the workers’ leukemia and neurological damage was being caused by chemicals such as benzene and N-hexane.
“Both are used as cleaning solvents in the assembly process to wipe down screens and plastic,” she says. “They were using isopropyl alcohol until somebody got the bright idea that (these solvents) evaporate more quickly, so they could speed up production. They’ve been used irresponsibly for the past several years and now workers are dying. They’re not provided with the proper gloves and protective gear mandated when handling such dangerous chemicals.”
After a petition drive in 2014 — connected to the release of the trailer for “Who Pays the Price?” — Apple claims to have reduced its usage of these chemicals considerably. This is commendable, but it was only done in response to bad PR and only affects its first tier of suppliers, with no compensation for those whose lives have already been ruined. Moreover, these chemicals are just two of many risks for workers. Others included on the list are exhaustion, mandatory overwork, shoddily constructed factory buildings and toxic air.
“It’s not a question of imposing Western, liberal human rights standards on Asian manufacturers,” says White. “China’s laws are strong enough — if they were enforced.”
But, of course, they aren’t, which seems to be the entire point of globalization: Brands can move their labor to countries where regulations and laws can be disregarded.
“Everything is strategically determined to serve financial performance,” says White. “They’re merely buyers of products; they don’t actually own any facilities, which would then anchor them to some kind of legal responsibility.”
White notes that Apple subcontractor Foxconn now has about 1.2 million workers in China, and powerful political connections. In one example she cites how Foxconn made a deal with the government regarding the supply of 300,000 students who were forced out of vocational schools.
“They are called ‘internships,’ but they have no choice in the matter and are told they will not receive their diplomas if they don’t go to work at Foxconn for several months, just so Foxconn can keep its labor costs down,” says White. “As if labor in China these days costs too much for companies like Apple to pay the going rate.” (According to an estimate in the 2014 BBC documentary “Apple’s Broken Promises,” about $5 of a $650 iPhone actually goes toward labor, compared with $248 that goes to Apple in profit.)
If a worker is injured or poisoned on the job, White found that they must turn to nongovernmental organizations for support in gaining the compensation they are due by law. White notes that NGOs such as Hong Kong-based China Labor Action were “essential in helping us identify patients and persuading them to talk with us.” Yet China’s “communist” government under President Xi Jinping seems committed to squashing anyone who is actually protecting worker rights.
“There have been at least 12 NGOs shut down over the past few years and that has been accelerating,” says White. “It’s much more of a crackdown than we’ve seen in the past.”
At this point, a reasonably informed person might start to wonder what’s going on. Didn’t Apple already come up with a bunch of reforms and ethical standards that their suppliers would adhere to after the spate of worker suicides at Foxconn factories between 2010 and 2013? Was it all just spin?
“With a company like Apple it’s hard to even use words like ‘sincerity’ or ‘trust,’ ” says White. “It is very disturbing to see Tim Cook in the media repeatedly asserting that Apple cares about these issues very much, yet evidence of that commitment is very hard to find on the ground. Apple’s presence in China — among the worst factories with the most workers harmed — far outweighs what we’ve seen with any other brand. Everyone we met had some connection back to Apple. I didn’t expect that, and it’s not what we went looking for, it’s just what we found.”
If Apple’s new standards mandate no more grueling overtime, then their contractors respond by forcing employees to “voluntarily” sign an agreement permitting any and all overtime. Supplier “standards” wind up seeming a bit like a Potemkin village.
“As consumers in the West and Japan, we’re all part of it,” says White. “Our demand is what’s driving the whole thing. I’m not calling for an international boycott, I’m calling for reform.”
So long as Apple markets itself as an ethical brand, White suggests we hold them to it. “And make sure those aren’t empty promises.”
White is currently in post-production on the film, and hopes to have it finished within the next few months, but there are no definite release plans as yet.
For more information, visit whopaysfilm-org.cadmiumandcotton.com.