Is It Ethical to Own an iPhone? Credit: iPhone image via Shutterstock

Recent media reports and ongoing protests over the reportedly abhorrent working conditions at factories where Apple's iPhones are produced have left socially conscious Americans with a dilemma: Is it ethical to own an iPhone?

For many Americans, even those who support socially responsible manufacturing and business practices, their iPhones and iPads have become must-have devices for both work and personal use. Now they're being forced to ask themselves whether they are willing to ignore strong evidence that their beloved devices are being made by mistreated and underpaid employees.

The charges of mistreatment of the workers who create Apple's products are not new. They have, however, gained mainstream momentum during the last months. The contradiction of Apple's $13 billion in profits in the fourth quarter of 2011 juxtaposed against images and stories of worker rights violations have painted a less than shining portrait of the tech giant.

According to a Jan. 25, New York Times report, the Foxconn Technology factory, where Apple manufactures many of their products, has repeatedly been criticized for ethics violations and socially irresponsible working conditions. Violations included in the report included:

  • Crowded dormitories where many workers were forced to live.
  • Workers forced to stand until their legs were swollen and they were unable to walk
  • Underage workers
  • Improper waste removal.
  • Wages of less than $17 to $22 a day.
  • Multiple suicide attempts by workers, including a recent instance where 150 workers threatened to jump off a roof due to a work and pay dispute.

Apple itself acknowledges the violations. It conducted 229 audits of supplier factories in 2011 and found 93 violations of exceeding the 60-hour workweek limit and a similar number of workers working six or more days a week. More information can be found at the Apple Supplier Responsibility webpage.

[Is Apple doing enough?]

That does not take into account two separate explosions last year at factories producing iPads, which killed four people and injured dozens more. Another violation occurred in January 2010 at an Apple factory owned by Wintek in which 137 workers were injured when they were forced to use a known dangerous chemical, n-hexane, to clean glass screens. It was used anyway because it dissolved three times faster than rubbing alcohol, meaning that more screens could be cleaned in a day. 

These violations have prompted a strong response against Apple, including a Change.org petition that as of Feb. 1 had 154,581 signatures asking Apple to protect workers making products in factories overseas. Another petition, started on Sumofus.org, also asked Apple to make the iPhone 5 ethically.

While Apple was mentioned in many of these reports,  Apple is not the only company engaging in socially irresponsible manufacturing practices. According to the New York Times, it is estimated that 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics are made at Foxconn factories in China, where the company employs 1.2 million people. Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and Dell are among the many other companies that use Foxconn factories to produce their products.  

The reality of the situation forces consumers to ask themselves where they stand on the issue. The question is:  If you need electronic tools and devices, such as an iPhone or laptop, to run your business and no other brands offer a socially responsible and ethical alternative, is it ethical to own these products since they are needed?

According to Janice Lawrence, director of the Business Ethics Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the answer lies with one's personal judgment.

"Technology has blurred the line between work and home life," Lawrence said. "For example, it allows us to receive email or phone and text messages after working hours.  In the same manner, technology has blurred business ethics and personal ethics.  This dilemma is a good example of that."

"The advances in the functional capabilities of these electronic products make them 'necessary' in the workplace," Lawrence said. "The decision to ignore the facts of the overseas production of the electronic tools is not necessarily unethical for a company using such products. Corporate social responsibility is composed of economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibilities, in descending order of obligation.  Economic responsibility comes first, and these products are needed to run the business. So using them is not unethical for the company."

While businesses may not be unethical for using these products, people need to make individual decisions based on their own personal beliefs, Lawrence said.

"In the absence of company policy addressing the ethics of vendors, the personal ethics of the user comes in play and brings with it another layer of questions to consider," Lawrence said. "To what extent is the user personally responsible for the production – or in this case, encouraging the production – of these products?  Can the user personally accept the circumstances of the production? What are the consequences to the user of refusing to use such products?"

The question is a difficult one for iPhone users. To iPhone user Barry Weinstein, owner of Pillowcase Studies, the problem is unfortunate, but in his opinion, true change will only come from a widespread transformation of the system, not a boycott of specific manufacturers.

"The situation in China is terrible, but boycotting products that assist the local economy will have little effect on the improvement of working conditions the Chinese labor force works under," Weinstein said. "The best we can do is work to improve the global economy so that such conditions no longer exist. By boycotting large companies, not only are the conditions still going to be bad, but many factory workers will become unemployed."

"Is That Ethical?" is a BusinessNewsDaily series in which we examine the ethics of business and acknowledge the ethical dilemmas businesses face every day.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.