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China suicides: Is Apple headed for a consumer backlash?

With deaths on the rise, labor rights groups are beginning to wonder if Apple is the next Nike.

Workers wait in line to seek help from the management outside a workers' care centre at a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in the southern Guangdong province, May 26, 2010. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

BEIJING, China — As Apple released the iPad today across Europe and Japan, a key supplier in China continued fortifying factory buildings with anti-suicide nets and bracing against a growing tide of public criticism about working conditions after 10 apparent employee suicides this year — including one this week hours after the company chief visited.

While tentative calls have emerged in China for boycotts of Apple products and other items made by electronics giant Foxconn, what remains entirely unclear is the impact this will have on the electronics manufacturing industry at large. The massive Foxconn plant, possibly the largest factory in the world, has been under the microscope for years over poor working conditions. In the past six months, renewed concerns have hit other electronics suppliers as well.

More than 60 workers making Apple touch screens at a Taiwanese-owned factory in Suzhou suffered nerve damage from on-the-job exposure to an illegally used chemical, but the story was not widely reported outside of China. In an investigation last fall, GlobalPost found widespread abuse of worker rights and labor laws across the heavily fragmented consumer electronics supply chain.

Yet there is no indication that the recent spate of news about devastating working conditions for factory employees who make trendy gadgets has dampened consumer enthusiasm for those products. Labor groups have repeatedly called for reforms, but as yet, the situation hasn’t changed.

Now, with an apparent suicide cluster well underway at a key Apple supplier, labor activists have begun to wonder if that tide might be about to turn in the same way it did for international apparel and shoe companies in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I think there is a tendency for consumers of iconic products like iPhones to stick their head in the sand when it comes abusive labor practices,” said Geoffrey Crothall of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. “Their iPhone reflects who they are, or rather the image of themselves they wish to present to the world, and they don't want that image tarnished.”

“However, I think with the all the publicity that Foxconn is getting and Apple publicly stating it will investigate the problems there, the message might be starting to get through,” he added.

On the Chinese web, censors have started deleting calls for Apple boycotts, but many keep emerging.

“After today, I won’t buy Apple products anymore. They are covered in the blood of Foxconn workers,” wrote a user called Beimo Xiaobing "I call for netizens to boycott these products and kick Foxconn out of China.”

Even China’s best-known blogger, heartthrob former racecar driver Han Han, joined the fray. On his blog, Han Han called low-wage factory workers “China’s bargaining chip, hostages to GDP.” (Read the English translation of his blog post.)

A tide of anti-Apple public opinion comes when the company is making a big push here in China for customers. But Apple’s real consumer base lies in the United States and elsewhere, thousands of miles from the factories and workers who make electronic gadgets.

Ultimately, labor groups say, the responsibility for factory conditions lies in the hands of consumers who buy the products. Chinese factories have taken over the consumer electronics production industry not because of special know-how or technology, but because there is a huge supply of cheap labor.

The Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) today started a petition drive calling for a month-long consumer boycott of all Foxconn-made products, including fourth-generation iPhones.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/Apple-iPad-suicides-china-suppliers