Record Apple profits dampened by iPhone contractor suicide

Paul Sakuma/AP
A customer displays an Apple iPhone 3GS at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday.

Now here's a contrast for you: "Apple smashes profit forecasts, iPhone shines" and "Employee Kills Himself Over Missing iPhone Prototype." Two top technology headlines of the day, about the same company, but with two very different thrusts.

Reports have surfaced that a young employee of Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, the company contracted to build iPhones and iPods for Apple, committed suicide last week after misplacing a prototype next-generation iPhone. The news has some questioning labor practices in the consumer electronics industry – and others asking if Apple's legendary culture of secrecy has gone too far.

China's Southern Metropolis Daily reported Wednesday that 25-year-old Sun Danyong was to have sent 16 iPhone prototypes to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters on July 9. Only 15 arrived. Fearing a leak, Apple pressured Foxconn to find the missing handset. Foxconn officials interrogated Sun and searched his home. A senior company security officer interrogated and beat him, according to Southern Metropolis Daily. Sun jumped to his death from his 12th-story apartment last Thursday. The case has been turned over to Chinese police.

Apple, fresh from reporting a 15 percent jump in profits despite the global recession, has so far sought to distance itself from the incident. "We are saddened by the tragic loss of this young employee, and we are awaiting results of the investigations into his death," Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet told CNET on Tuesday. "We require our suppliers to treat all workers with dignity and respect."

The company has recently touted the environmental achievements of its Macbook Pro line of laptops, but what about the environment that employees of its suppliers must work in? A 2006 report alleged poor conditions at Chinese iPod manufacturing plants, forced overtime, and squalid on-site living quarters. In response, Apple sent an auditing team to an unspecified Chinese plant, and released this report on iPod manufacturing.

John Biggs, from gadget blog CrunchGear, reminds of the human cost of the developed world's obsession with gadgets:

Human beings make the stuff we buy. We may imagine a graceful ballet of robots welding and soldering, untouched by humans, but someone - probably a young woman from a rural province - is actually snapping the final parts together and testing the screen. She sits there all day. She has a set of requirements that she has to check.

Biggs goes on to use this case as evidence of the consumer electronics industry's obsession with new gear for increasingly lower prices.

When I was growing up, a TV was a major investment. Now I can go down to Best Buy ... and pick one up for a pittance. It’s this race to the bottom that is killing our ability to judge when enough is enough. These things cost something. They cost lost jobs at home and draconian labor policies abroad. They cost water and energy and fossil fuels. They cost in psychological distance.

But don't be too quick to paint Apple as the bad guy, Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, told eWeek. "I think the connection between Apple and this guy’s suicide is very tenuous, at best," he said. "It was quite possible that Apple was very stringent with Foxconn, and so Foxconn went over the top, knowing Apple would be very disturbed [if secrets were leaked]. But this is completely knowable stuff."


What's next? Will we see a race for sustainable, fair-trade electronics, as we see in coffee, produce, and clothing? Let us know what you think in the comments, or follow us on Twitter.

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