Book Review: Dying For an iPhone, by Swetha Ratnasabhapathi, Chennai Centre for China Studies on Sep 20, 2022

Jenny CHAN, Mark SELDEN, and Ngai PUN
Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers
Chicago: Haymarket Books
ISBN-13‏: ‎978-1642591248

The book ‘Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of China’s Workers’ written by Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai is a sweeping account of the inhumane working conditions in the Chinese factory floors of Foxconn. A Taiwanese based company with a cartel of clientele, Apple is Foxconn’s largest customer by far. A mammoth corporation with over a million workforce in China alone, during the early 2010s, Foxconn is the largest assembler of iPhones, iPads, iPods, Macs, TVS, Xboxes etc, working on high pressure to meet the demands of the market. The book, grounded on research on Foxconn, Apple and the Chinese state is aimed to inform and create consciousness about the labour issues, creating a transnational activism to oppose oppression of labour wherever it is found.

The very title of the book ‘Dying for an iPhone’ reflects a double entendre. On the one hand workers are struggling to meet the corporate requirements of high speed and precision of manufacturing pushing them to commit suicide; literally dying to make an iPhone, and on the other hand are the global consumers dying to buy the latest model of an iPhone. It is this dichotomy that is reflected in the book where the lives of the Foxconn workers are not just constrained by management policies of Foxconn but are also shaped by the brands whose products are being produced.

The book is a result of a nine year long research from the period of 2010 to 2019, with the authors touring different locations of Foxconn around China. The book is structured as a series of first hand interviews of the frontline workers, line leaders, Foxconn managers, student interns, teachers supervising internship programmes, local government officials and non governmental labour rights groups in China, giving the reader a vivid and thorough picture of the whole issue.

The book is divided into twelve chapters touching upon all aspects encompassing the life of a Foxconn worker right from to his plights at the assembly line to its effect on his personal and social life, and their responses by way of strikes and protests. Each chapter is well researched and filled with facts and anecdotes, albeit the interviews creating a sense of monotony.

The authors’ probe started with the series of suicides that happened at Foxconn facilities in China in 2010, with 18 workers having committed suicide by the end of the year. Undercover research was carried out in all nine of Foxconn’s facilities spread around nine cities in China, bringing to light all the discriminatory practices in the factories. From withholding of wages, to poor living conditions and forcing student interns to work in the plant, the authors manage to expose how Foxconn has failed to
live up to its obligations.

The book does not only bring out the inhumane production practices of Foxconn but also assess the extent to which the Chinese state and global corporations try to extend their responsibility in upholding worker rights. The book lucidly describes with illustrations the brutal working and living conditions that the labourers had to undergo.

With Foxconn striving to dominate the global electronics manufacturing and advanced
technology, this aspiration of the company aligns with China’s goal to become the
world’s economic and technological superpower.

With Foxconn striving to dominate the global electronics manufacturing and advanced technology, this aspiration of the company aligns with China’s goal to become the

world’s economic and technological superpower. This aim is reflected in the
quintessential nexus between Foxconn and the Chinese local Government which has been unmasked in the book.

Going a step further the authors not only focus on the human cost but also the social, and environmental impact of the production practices. The impact of this working environment on the personal and social lives of the labourers reduces them to mere machines. An entire chapter is dedicated to the impact of the company on the environment.

The book in a pursuit to bring about the predicament of the Chinese workers has not focussed much on the Apple-Foxconn nexus in bringing about the degrading conditions of the workers. Apple’s measures with respect to the issue though mentioned in some places could have been given much focus. The interconnectedness if pondered further could have broken the monotony of the book which reads as a document of interviews.

On the larger picture the book is a work exposing the fallacy of global capitalism. The authors’ bring out the profit dynamics between Apple and Foxconn with Foxconn only receiving a margin of the profit and the workers in turn incurring only a pittance, reflecting the global division of labour. With these it is hard to miss out as a reader how all aspects of Marxism be it surplus value theory or theory of alienation unfolding in the case of Foxconn. The case does not stop here, with Foxconn’s foray into other countries the story albeit with the company adapting to the labour laws and practices, is
still ongoing.

Ms. Swetha Ratnasabhapathi is a research officer at C3S.

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