Do People Care where their Phones come from?

Mobile phones are now the centre of people’s lives.  You only have to consider the implications when it is lost or misplaced to realise the grip it has on us.  No calls or texts, no email on the go, no Facebook or twitter updates, no Internet at your fingertips, no communication with the world.

Considering the impact these devices have on our lives it is strange that most people have little or no idea where their phone comes from.  As far as they are concerned they come from the phone shop.  They walk in to upgrade and leave with the latest model.  The old one is then discarded, often passed down the mobile phone food chain to a relative. I asked some of my family and friends if they knew where their phones come from.  The reaction was mixed.  A lot of them say China.  They would be correct in that assumption.  Around half of the world’s phones are manufactured in China.  I put another question to people though. How is your phone made?  This has most people stumped.  Not because the complexity of the devices themselves, but by asking who actually builds them.  “Is it robots or humans?”, I ask.  I got some interesting answers.  Most people answer that it is a combination of the two, guessing that robots make the circuit boards and people assemble the basic components on a production line.  Some people thought phones are so complicated now robots must do it all.  In reality if a component can be assembled by hand, then it is.  Robots are rare on Chinese production lines and are only used if the components cannot be assembled by hand.  However it is extraordinary what Chinese workers can achieve.  They can fit extremely small components together on a constant almost never ending production line without great difficulty.  The cost of labour is so cheap in China compared to the cost of robots, it makes financial sense to use Chinese workers to do as much of the manufacturing as possible.  The downside to this is the human cost.  Long shifts doing repetitive processes can result in repetitive injury strains and health issues.  This is the reality that Chinese workers face.  Very long working hours doing mind numbingly repetitive tasks.  How many people really consider this when using their phone?  Are people aware of the human cost that goes into making their phones? Do they even care?

Most people I spoke with are aware that China is probably where their phone was made.  However, they certainly were not aware of the amount of human effort goes in during the manufacturing process.  I’m not suggesting that we should boycott phones made in china, nor am I suggesting any slave labour.  Britain had much worse working conditions a hundred years ago and comparable working conditions the 1950’s and 60’s.  The fact of the matter is that China has a huge population of workers willing to travel huge distances to work.  They are highly motivated to better themselves.  The jobs they take up are far better paying and much less back breaking than the usual agricultural work they may have found themselves in previously.  Typical factory pay can be between around $50 – $200 dollars a month, which doesn’t sound like much.  But when you factor in that this is relative and meals are only a few cents and rent can be as low as $20 – $100 a month then the standard of living is much higher than we give credit for.  People in countries in Africa are in much more poverty than people in China.

I think that it is important to know about the people who are manufacturing your phones and indeed any of our goods.  I think that it is important to realise that what we take for granted as a simple free upgrade, Chinese workers spend hours assembling by hand.  They spend hours upon hours assembling mobile phones that they will never be able to afford.

The Products From China

It seems in the world today most electrical products are made (or assembled) in China. With the cost of labor in China at only $2.05, a huge number of companies are using Chinese workers to produce their wares.

Despite the ridiculously low cost in comparison to the minimum wage here in the UK (which is currently £6.08 if you are over 21) the average pay of employees across China has risen by 22% in the last year. The country as a whole, doesn’t have a set minimum wage for all of it’s employees across all of the provinces. This pay is decided by each province, and because of the rise in pay in each of these provinces, China now has the third highest average pay in developing asia.

Because of the rise in the pay for Chinese workers, many companies have been forced to find workers in South American countries. Brazilian employees are only a few cents more than the Chinese, and are payed just $2.11 an hour.

As an experiment, I had a look at each of the electrical products I have in my room, and out of the 16 electrical items I own (one of which being a kitchen appliance), 10 of these were made or assembled in China.

I also had a look at a few of my flatmates belongings, and found that 6 out of 10 of one were Chinese made and 4 of 8 from another were Chinese made. Out of my 10 Chinese made electrical products, 6 of these were big name brand. These big companies include Microsoft, Apple and Kenwood amongst them.

Through my travels around my flatmates electrical devices, I came across hair straighteners, hair dryers, hand held electrical whisks, irons, headphones, games consoles (both hand held and table top consoles), music devices, phones, cameras (a mixture of digital, film, poleroid, and video cameras) and speakers. These, along with the absurd number of Apple products around my house, the place felt like a home for techies and gamers, not really a place for a house full of Interaction Designers. That being said, out of the 8 Interaction Designers in our house all 43 Apple products are split. The only non Interaction Design student owns no Apple products, which must say something about our discipline as a consumer market.

As I had a look through my flatmates electrical products, I figured out that in my house of 9 people there are 43 Apple products. Many of which (as we know) are made at Foxconn factories in China. As of late, Apple has had it’s ‘Nike moment’ where the quality of working conditions and the low pay of the employees has been brought to light. Another set of incidents at Foxconn factories that has been brought to light by the world is a recent spate of suicides in 2011 that forced Foxconn to put up anti-jump netting around their towers to try and stop it. With 4 deaths in 2011, 14 out of 18 attempts being unfortunately successful in 2010 and 4 deaths between 2007 and the end of 2009.

As I’m sure will be the case with numerous other companies in the future, Apple have been dealing with the issue admirably. From a companies perspective, this ‘Nike Moment’ is a terrible thing to happen, but Apple are not the worst by far, it just so happens that attention has been brought to the treatment of employees by the media.

When I asked my flatmates whether they knew the working conditions in which the factory workers are forced to labour, (with Apple as the exception due to the recent leak of media from Foxconn factories) they had no idea. Most of them didn’t even know that some of their products were in fact made in China, until I asked them to look. I found myself often surprised by the products that told me of their origin, and also the sheer number of Chinese made products I own.

The most surprising for me would most likely be my headphones, which come from a little known Canadian company, despite the size of the company of it’s popularity, their products are in actual fact, made in Chine. On the other hand though, there were things that did not surprise me at all. The Apple products, obviously being some of them, but also my X-Box 360, and Nintendo Dsi.

There were a few products I own that surprised me with the fact that they were not made in China. One of my external hard drives – which comes from a very large, particularly well known computer technology company – that was actually made in Belgium was a real shocker, as generally computer components are known for being mass produced easily and cheaply in China. This hard drive and my mobile phone both surprised me. My phone, which is made by Nokia (a Finnish company who are known for the phones we all loved from growing up) was in fact made in Finland. The fact that the company is owned and run and produce their products all in the same relatively small country (in comparison to a place as large as China), is hugely respectable.

Almost all of the people I spoke to about their technological products wouldn’t have thought twice about where they are coming from and the conditions the workers are in on a daily basis. They wouldn’t make any effort to look for products that were specifically made or not made in china. And perhaps more influentially, many of them said that despite them receiving news and information about Foxconn’s conditions, they would still by Apple products.

Sometimes in the world, fashion and brand is worth more than the comfort of a human being.

Do we know where our products are made?

We all know that most of our clothes aren’t made in the UK. The vast majority are produced in Asia and the Middle East where textile-manufacturing costs are cheep. Everyone buys clothes made worldwide but few bother to find out where their new clothes are manufactured.

It is hard for the average buyer to take an interest in whether we buy them from an ethical, fair trade company or from a “sweatshop” factory employing children when all we’re given is “Made in …”. It is hard to find out where the products are actually manufactured and what the company policy is for workers. Often the brand will sub-contract textile factories in the Middle- East and Asia. The problem for the brand is they have to carry out consistent checks on these companies to ensure they haven’t contracted another factory that doesn’t abide the workers rights and working conditions.

In 2009, TNS Knitwear, who produced clothes for Primark, were found by a undercover BBC investigation, to be employing illegal workers who were working 12 hour days and receiving £3.50 an hour. The Manchester based company denied the claim and Primark carried out its own investigation. Primark is best known for its cheap fashion clothing and has risen in popularity through the recession. How much has this affected peoples spending in budget shops?

We asked the public on the street of Dundee if they know where their products come from and whether they would pay more for something more ethically manufactured then ones that were maybe a bigger brand but have vague ethical code. The majority of the people we asked assumed that their clothes were made in the Middle-East and Asia. They didn’t have much interest in finding where their clothes came from and it didn’t effect their choice of purchase. We asked if they would pay more for products produced in factories with better working conditions and pay. They said they would be more inclined to buy even if it meant paying a bit more for them. One woman had already heard about the scandal with Primark and had stopped shopping there because of it.

We we’re interested whether anyone knew if Apple products are actually being made in China. They all assumed that Apple built its products in America where they were designed. This shows how unaware we can be about our material possessions and the journey they took into creation. Perhaps brands should promote the journey of their clothes and make information about their ethics more available for the public.

I asked the staff at Superdry if they knew where the clothes that they sell are manufactured. The first person I asked said they were made in the E.U until I pointed out that the shirt next to me said “Made in China.” She left to get her manager who told me that the clothes were designed in England and manufactured abroad but she couldn’t tell me much more then that. She said that Superdry check all their factories for illegal workers and bad conditions. I found it interesting how the company don’t inform their staff of exact factories where maybe it could add a selling point for brands who have high prices to make their customers feel that it was ok to spend £50 on a pair of jeans if they knew it was of the best quality and made by workers who were well paid.

In a recession it is hard for people not to go for the good deals. They are normal happy that their new clothes might be lacking slightly in quality and will have a shorter life span then a high quality piece of clothing. When the global economy beings to rise then maybe there will be more focus on the manufacture of clothes within the general public.

Attitudes to Manufacturing in China

“Made in China” – I’d bet that phrase appears at least once in every house in the country, but how do people feel about China monopolizing the manufacturing market?

 

To answer that question I thought I‘d ask my Scottish flat mates a few questions and then ask the same questions to my flat mate who was born and raised in Scotland, but whose parents and ancestors are all Chinese, and then compare the answers. This blog post was going to address the question “Does a Chinese perspective differ from a Scottish perspective with regards to manufacturing in China”. But it turned out my Chinese flat mates opinions were identical to everybody else’s. The main consensus was that we as a generation just don’t really care about where our clothes come from; it’s the last thing we would check.

 

One question was “Can you tell me where anything you’re wearing was made”. Nobody knew for sure, they could only make educated guesses. My Chinese flat mate mentioned that the hoodie he was wearing was actually bought in Hong Kong, but when we went to look where it was made, it didn’t say. This raised the question do our clothes here state the country of manufacture because we actually care about where they came from or just purely because it is a legal requirement.

 

I stumbled across this section in a website recently: “1000 Toys NOT Made in China”. A whole list dedicated to focusing on where these toys where not made, rather than where they were. However at the end in brackets it stated “Note: Some manufacturers have part of their products made in China”, so appears it’s near impossible to purchase goods these days that are completely detached from China. This list featured toys that where made in Thailand and Israel amongst many other non-American or European countries, so why was China singled out and picked on? One person’s comment on the list cited the “safety risks” associated with Chinese manufacturing and mentioned the toy recalls of 2007. In the June of 2007 China had manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States that year.

 

But this anti China attitude continues past toy purchases, there are several articles and blog dedicated to the challenge of living free from any Chinese manufacturing, and they varied from just trying it for the day, to long term lifestyles.

NotMadeInChinaLife : http://www.notmadeinchinalife.com/

 

A surprising statistic is that only 2.7 percent of US consumer purchases have the “Made in China” label, and that 88.5 percent of American’s consumer spending is on things made in the US. With this in mind it seems strange that people should be wary of Chinese products and there “domination” over the global market. Perhaps it’s because America is a much larger country and economy so it can sustain itself better.

In a conversation with a flat mate he starts talking about how he would like to buy more things that are made in the U.K and would probably be prepared to pay slightly more for that, but raises the point that it’s not an easy thing to do, almost everything is outsourced. He then mentions Jack Wills, and the fact that their clothes are “Fabulously British” is a major part of their branding technique. A quick Google search reveals that Jack Wills do indeed manufacture some clothes in China, as well as Turkey and Portugal, along with many posts from people ranting about this. There is even a facebook group entitled: “Jack Wills, fabulously British…yet made in china?…failll” to which somebody has replied “no? because the clothes represent Britain”. I think this is a fair statement, just because something wasn’t manufactured in Britain doesn’t mean that it isn’t a British product.

 

 

 

 

Made by hand.

Handmade goods have always been associated with quality. The word handmade leads us to believe a craftsman has poured blood, sweat and tears into his work to give us the highest possible quality product and for the highest possible price too. However this is not the case when people think about goods from China.

The general thought is that products which have been manufactured in China are done so in sweat shops by people who are paid low wages and work long hours. This is most likely the way they are made but why do we think that the product that they work so hard and for so long to make is less than an item made in Europe?

Right now in the Western world, there has been a resurge of people making things by hand, mainly by creative people. I know of countless disciplines where people have reverted to the old ways after the digital boom of the 90’s; textiles, printing, film, photography, etc. We all appreciate the effort and aesthetics of this and even more so we are willing to pay for a hand crafted product over a machined one. So why the stigma of Chinese Products?

After interviewing a select number of people, there seemed to be a common connection between their thoughts on Chinese goods. All of them said that they believe the goods were made in sweatshops, as stated earlier.

Critics also point to the fact that sweatshops often do not pay taxes and thus don’t pay for the public services they use for production and distribution and don’t contribute to the country’s tax revenue. In some countries, such as China, it is not uncommon for these institutions to withhold workers’ pay.

“According to labor organizations in Hong Kong, up to $365 million is withheld by managers who restrict pay in exchange for some service, or don’t pay at all.”

Furthermore, critics of sweatshops point to the fact that those in the West who defend sweatshops show double standards by complaining about sweatshop labor conditions in countries considered enemies or hostile by Western governments, such as China, while still gladly consuming their exports but complaining about the quality.

Sweatshops have been around for a long time. Every country has had ‘sweatshops’ sometime in there history. For example, in the UK around 1840’s, there were sweatshops, mostly filled with working class women, who were increasingly needing to earn a wage for themselves, working as seamstresses. The work was long and low paid, as it is today for Chinese workers.

Charles Kingsley, an English priest of the Church of England, university professor, historian and novelist, published a paper on the state of affairs in England in 1850. The paper was entitled ‘Cheap Clothes and Nasty’. This brought the matter to public attention. I am not defending sweatshops in anyway, merely trying to dismantle the negative stereotype that all goods from China are made in horrible conditions and sweatshops are a part of our history as much as in China today.