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Sour Apples

Those iGadgets we love are being made under distasteful conditions.

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The New York Times recently gave its readers an in-depth look at what's going on inside Foxconn, the company that owns the China-based factories that create Apple products.

It's not breaking news that the conditions for Foxconn's employees are questionable. In fact, it's a story I've been avoiding for a few years. At the mere mention of it, I've been quick to switch off the television or suddenly decide I've read enough of the newspaper for the day.

But it's hard to completely cut yourself off from the headlines with an iPhone in your pocket.

The Times story is riddled with disturbing examples of the conditions Foxconn factory workers deal with daily. Explosions killing some, injuring hundreds. Legs that swell from hours upon hours of standing. Crowded dorms, poisonous chemicals, and seven-day workweeks. Last year, within 93 Foxconn facilities, at least half of the workers exceeded the 60-hours-a-week work limit.

The article spotlights Lai Xiaodong, a 22-year-old factory worker who was burned almost beyond recognition (in the hospital, his girlfriend only recognized him by his legs) in an iPad factory explosion. He died two days later with his grieving family by his side. His mother refused to touch him, fearing any physical contact would cause him pain.

Foxconn, of course, is quick to dismiss the accusations from the Times. And Apple refuses to comment. That's basically how it's been, until now.

Apple has left plenty of room for consumers (including myself) to bury their heads in the sand, content with the idea that the story is likely just another blown-out-of-proportion media blitz. But has too much evidence piled up? Has it gotten to the point where we must question the morality of purchasing our smart phones?

Maybe. But if you have to keep digging a hole deeper to bury your head, you will eventually hit China.

Some consumers are taking notice. Mark Shields, a communications worker and admitted Apple enthusiast, is calling for Apple to fix working conditions for its employees overseas. Shields created a petition on change.org, a website that caters to controversial activists. The petition, which currently has over 150,000 signatures, encourages Apple to continue to "think different" when it comes to questionable labor practices in China.

"You know what's awesome?" the petition asks. "Listening to NPR podcasts through an Apple Airport, playing through a Mac laptop, while puttering about the kitchen. Do you know the fastest way to replace awesome with a terrible knot in your stomach? Learning that your beloved Apple products are made in factories where conditions are so bad, it's not uncommon for workers to permanently lose the use of their hands."

Shields, unlike some, does not advocate for an Apple boycott. Good thinking. It's unlikely that a boycott of iPhones or iPads would gain any steam.

It pains me to admit it, because a few years ago I would've ridiculed someone for saying it, but it'd be really hard to give up my iPhone. The speed with which I can have any information in the world in the palm of my hand is unparalleled and, in short, addicting.

It's also not as simple as switching to a different smart-phone manufacturer. Not only does the iPhone, in many consumers' opinions, outshine other smart phones. Other smart-phone companies have also had their factory working conditions questioned.

Plus I have a few "Words with Friends" games that I really need to finish.

With it being unlikely that any boycott would gain enough participants to ruffle Apple's feathers, what's the solution? Hoping that Apple will fix these appalling conditions simply because it's the right thing to do? It's worth a shot.

Along with its Foxconn story, the Times ran a poll that revealed that consumers thought Apple and similar technology companies should begin manufacturing products in the U.S. That would, of course, raise production costs considerably and, in turn, bump up the sales tag of products whose prices we take for granted.

Apple has little choice but to eventually address the growing concern its customers are finally beginning to show for Foxconn's mistreated factory workers. Hopefully, though, the question will no longer be: "Are you willing to give up your iPhone for human rights?"

It'll be: "How much more are you willing to pay for American-made?"

Michael Wassmer is a communications consultant living Memphis.

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