Imperialism and the iPhone

Foxconn workers in their sleeping quarters

This is the third of the synopses of parts of the opening chapter of John Smith’s Imperialism in the 21st Century (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2016). The synopsis and commentary below is written by Phil Duncan.

Unlike the humble cup of coffee and t-shirt that we looked at in the first two synopses, iPhones are technologically complex.  While the simplicity of the first two commodities might help blind us to the complex social relations of exploitation which produce them, in the case of a commodity like the iPhone it can be their dazzling sophistication which does that job.

The most important aspect of John’s book is that it lays bare precisely these relations.  This, inherently, involves exposing how these relations of exploitation – in particular the super-exploitation of Third World workers by First World capital – is hidden by the way GDP figures and other official economic data are collected, defined and presented.  These figures “reveal no sign of any cross-border profit flows or value transfers affecting the distribution of profits to Apple and its various suppliers.  The only part of Apple’s profits that appear to originate in China are those resulting from the sale of its products in that country. . .  the flow of wealth from Chinese and other low-wage workers sustaining the profits and prosperity of Northern (ie First World – PD) firms and nations is rendered invisible in economic data and in the brains of the economists.” (p22)

About 40% of the world’s consumer electronics are assembled by the FoxConn complex in Shenzhen in southern China.  Apple, Dell, Motorola and a string of other First World companies have products assembled there.  At its height in 2010, Foxconn had 430,000 workers in its Shenzhen complex.  That same year, 14 attempted suicide because of the nature of the conditions under which they were forced to work and live.  Foxconn thoughtfully sought to reduce deaths by attaching nets to catch workers throwing themselves out dormitory windows.

The workers assembling these sophisticated products are on minimum wages. thus having little alternative but to do substantial amounts of overtime: 100-130 hours per month and 150-180 during peak production periods.  They work seven days a week, 11 hours a day, with one day off per month, less in peak seasons.

Some 260 million workers in China work in factories outside the rural areas which are their homes.  As such, they have no access to local municipal services, including health and education, nor can they bring their families with them.  They are subject to militaristic drilling and disciplining as workers.  The work is extremely intense.  Workers can’t stop to grab a breath.  They aren’t even allowed to wear gloves for protection  because this would slow them down.

Here’s what happened when Apple redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute several years ago:

“New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.  A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories. . . Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift. . . ” (p24)

There are, needless to say, no independent unions in these plants.

Capitalist mouthpieces ‘justify’ the horrendous conditions by praising imperialist companies for providing ‘job opportunities’ and ‘the market’ determines wages.  And even that this is positively good employment for women and girls, as it offers them ‘independence’.

In the next synopsis, we’ll look at how little this employment has to do with emancipating young women.

Drawing on the work of Greg Linden, Jason Dedrick and Kenneth Kraemer, John looks at the kind of profits made by tech companies having their assembly work done in China. In 2006, the 30GB Apple iPod retailed at $US299 while the total production cost was $US144.40.  The $US154.60 profit is divided between Apple, its distributors and retailers and the US government (through various taxes).  In official figures this latter amount is all counted as “value-added” and part of US GDP.  Of the total number of workers (41,000), only 30 were production workers based in the United States, while 12,250 were production workers in China.

Thus while super-exploitation of Chinese workers is producing massive profits for Apple and similar firms, it appears on the surface that they are massively less productive than US workers!

in 2011, Apple overtook oil giant Exxon as the world’s most-valued (in economic terms) company, being ‘worth’ $US416.6 billion.  At the start of 2014, it also had a cash stockpile of almost $US147 billion.  Its Chinese workers were slaving away for 80-plus hours a week for $US30 per week pay.

FoxConn’s owner, Taiwanese company Hon Hai, who are squeezed by Apple and co, are forced to seek cheaper and cheaper labour, recently moving a chunk of their production to north China where they now have 300,000 workers producing Apple’s iPhone orders on 100 assembly lines, each with three shifts of 600 workers, working 24 hours a day.


  1. Wow, no comments on these three synopses? I read something recently about the average U.S. household having, if I remember correctly, 11 devices (meaning smartphones, computers, smart TVs, etc). They also have a huge load of consumer debt, which I have to remind my husband of when he can’t believe the junk people possess (pickups, snowmobiles, ATVs, tractors, etc).

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