Talking Point: Affordable Consoles Come at a Cost

There are no easy answers

Earlier this week we reported on the news that Foxconn, manufacturer for many of the world’s biggest technology companies, employed under-age interns to work on Wii U manufacturing. Foxconn admitted that it had employed 14-16 year old school attendees and stated that it had “apologized to each of the students for our role in this action”. It was damaging news for Nintendo, which responded by issuing the following statement.

Nintendo is in communication with Foxconn and is investigating the matter. We take our responsibilities as a global company very seriously and are committed to an ethical policy on sourcing, manufacture and labor. In order to ensure the continued fulfillment of our social responsibility throughout our supply chain, we established the Nintendo CSR Procurement Guidelines in July 2008. We require that all production partners, including Foxconn, comply with these Guidelines, which are based on relevant laws, international standards and guidelines. If we were to find that any of our production partners did not meet our guidelines, we would require them to modify their practices according to Nintendo’s policy. For more information about Nintendo’s Corporate Social Responsibility report, please visit http://www.nintendo.co.jp/csr/en/index.html

In many respects, Nintendo’s response pushed the necessary buttons but did little more, assuring consumers that it would deal with the situation and apply its own guidelines and standards. In fact, some comments to our original news story predicted that response, with the company reminding us all about these expectations without actually going as far as to threaten a move away from Foxconn. Some may have wished to see Nintendo slap down its manufacturing partner in stronger terms, but its reserved statement and a modest requirement that Foxconn may need to “modify” its practices shows that, beyond dealing with the controversy, Nintendo doesn’t seem to be concerned enough to seek alternative manufacturing partners.

The biggest issue with this incident, we’d argue, isn’t just the fact that teenagers were illegally employed and, according to accounts, forced to work long hours doing difficult, physical work, but the undeniable reality that it’s the latest of a number of serious issues involving Foxconn. We’ve also seen statements remarkably similar to Nintendo’s from companies such as Apple and Microsoft, both having to tackle recent controversies of their own.

These developments aren’t unique this year, either, with Chinese workers repeatedly being driven to extreme actions by their working conditions. Back in May 2010 it was reported by Gamasutra that Nintendo was investigating labour conditions at factories manufacturing Wii consoles, due to the news that ten Foxconn employees had committed suicide by jumping from their dormitory buildings in preceding months. Tellingly, Gamasutra concluded its report with the following words.

The Mario house is reportedly conducting a survey of Foxconn's practices to see if the manufacturer is within those guidelines, although it's unclear what kind of action would be taken if Foxconn fails to meet those standards.

Little seemed to have changed in Foxconn’s practices by January 2012, as a Microsoft-centric story published by GamesIndustry.biz demonstrates. On that occasion 300 workers at a Foxconn plant manufacturing Xbox 360 consoles threatened a mass-suicide. The workers had been offered the choice of continuing work or accepting a compensated dismissal, but when a number chose the latter the monetary incentive was removed, prompting the mass demonstration. Not only was the late withdrawal of compensation callous, but the drastic actions of a large number of workers was proof of how difficult their situation had become. The same article recounts the well-known and infamous claim that Foxconn’s response to high suicide rates was to install anti-suicide nets on the roofs of 12 factories. Microsoft, for its part, said it was “investigating this issue”.

It goes on, with reports in June this year that 1000 workers rioted at a facility for around two hours, with dozens later arrested. There’s a catalogue of incidents that ultimately comes back to one core theme: cheap labour, as provided by Foxconn in its Chinese factories, is bringing an enormous range of gadgets and technological luxuries to the world at affordable prices, with the cost of misery for its employees. These aren’t rare, one-off incidents of disgruntled workers, but the desperate acts of over-worked and poorly treated staff over a sustained period of time.

There is potential light at the end of the tunnel that could prompt an improvement in Foxconn’s practices. Earlier this year, admittedly before some of these latest problems, the Fair Labor Association secured a major agreement with Foxconn and its most famous customer, Apple, to make definitive improvements at three particular facilities. As detailed by Engadget, it was the result of a detailed report that outlined the extent to which Chinese labour laws were being broken, with employees often working over 60 hours a week and more than seven consecutive days during peak periods. The agreement reached will apparently ensure that Chinese legal codes are met by July 2013, with the number of monthly overtime hours – amongst various improvements – to be cut from 80 to 36 hours per month. Production levels will apparently be maintained not by enforcing unreasonable working hours, but by employing thousands of extra workers. It’s expected, as a result, that Apple products will see a slight increase in cost in the U.S.

Time will tell, but if these changes are made in these Apple factories then it should increase pressure on companies such as Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and others to ensure that similar terms are followed at their respective facilities. Apple, with its enormous level of success and profits, is arguably in the best position to take a financial hit, but it doesn’t seem to be too much to ask that all companies using Foxconn enforce similar standards. The ultimate goal, surely, is to improve worker’s rights and ensure that our technological treats don’t come at the cost of morally unacceptable manufacturing processes.

Ultimately, part of the responsibility will lie with us, as consumers. Much of our focus when a new system is announced, much like it has been with Wii U, is on the price. For many it’s a question of how long we need to save to add a console to our collection as these are, after all, luxury items. Will we, as lovers of technology, be willing to have less devices at our disposal or pay a little more? It’s the million dollar question, as Nintendo and others will ultimately make decisions based on business sense, while no doubt making earnest but potentially futile efforts to improve the practices of Foxconn.

If Nintendo consoles go up in price in the future to accommodate higher standards in worker’s rights, but gamers vote with their wallets and say they won’t pay that much money, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

We'd love to know what you think about these issues and the incidents highlighted above. Join in the debate in the comments section and vote in our polls, below.

Do revelations about Wii U's manufacturing affect your decision to buy the system? (287 votes)

Yes, I will avoid buying one for now

3%

Yes, it makes me think twice about buying

11%

No, I'll buy a Wii U even if I'm unhappy about Foxconn

52%

No, it doesn't affect my buying decision

33%

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How strongly do you care about issues with Foxconn? (270 votes)

I think it's important and want to see changes

45%

It matters, but I don't see what difference I can make

33%

It's a fact of life, so I don't really pay attention to it

14%

I don't care at all

9%

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