From the hype surrounding the release of Apple's latest iPhone at the start of July, you might be forgiven for thinking it could do everything from making a cup of coffee to shaving your armpits. The July 29 Sydney Morning Herald said there was even a new application that could measure your performance in bed.
Even a technophobe like me was tempted to buy one.
Then on July 16, came the news that Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old employee of Foxconn, the company contracted to build iPhones and iPods for Apple, had committed suicide after being beaten for misplacing a prototype next-generation iPhone.
The sweatshop conditions at Foxconn's factory 20 miles from Hong Kong were first exposed in June 2006 by British right-wing tabloid Mail on Sunday — and when it takes the Mail on Sunday to do an expose, things have got to be bad.
Apple admitted in August 2006 that staff assembling its products worked more than 60 hours a week 35% of the time and worked a seven-day week 25% of the time. Apple also said its own investigation found: "The process for reporting overtime was manual and monthly, and while not a violation of the Code of Conduct, it was subject to human error and relied too much on memory for dispute resolution."
So, it is likely people assembling those iPods and iPhones were not being paid for their work.
Apple also admitted: "Two employees reported that they had been disciplined by being made to stand at attention." The company pledged to start an "aggressive manager and employee training program" to stamp out such practices.
But it seems little has changed. A July 23 report from China Labour Watch said: "In the wake of Sun Danyong's death, other Foxconn workers have spoken out about violence at the factory including beatings with iron bars and whips. Nor was Sun Danyong's death the first suicide at Foxconn factory, where workers face overwhelming labour violations and high-pressure work."
So what are hip Western consumers to do if they still really want a cool mp3 player or phone with which to impress their product-fixated friends?
Well, there are solar-powered media players and phones not made by Apple. But there are no guarantees they don't contain coltan, a mineral commonly found in laptops, phones and media players, and whose extraction fuels slavery and wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They'd also still be buying a piece of plastic that would eventually end up as landfill or possibly as toxic e-waste shipped back to China. They could perhaps delay that inevitability by buying second-hand.
In any case, don't expect Apple's shareholders to have any sympathy. They have recently been calling for Apple's genius CEO, Steve Jobs, to step down because his ailing health is affecting Apple's share price. If that's the way they treat the man at the top, how do they feel about the minions at the bottom?
A clue can be found in the comments section underneath the Christian Science Monitor's online report on Sun's death. An Apple shareholder calling himself iphoneinvestor wrote: "I'll need to pull out a considerable amount of shares if activists and labour rights groups across the nation begin jumping all over this. They may decide to block consumers at the Apple and AT&T stores causing my profits to plummet downhill!"
Thanks for the tip, iphoneinvestor.