Leading article: The Western consumer can improve conditions for the Chinese worker

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The Independent Online

Yesterday was international iPad day as Apple's new gadget went on sale around much of the world, including Britain. But there has been something unusual about this latest product launch from the world's most valuable technology firm. For the spotlight has been yanked away from the product itself and on to the manner of its production.

The iPad might have been conceived by US brain power, but it is produced by Chinese hands. The iPad is manufactured at the Foxconn electronics plant in Shenzhen, China's southern industrial capital. And here there have been allegations of staff forced to work excessive hours, compulsory overtime and a host of other abuses by the firm's Taiwanese management. The factory witnessed its 10th suicide of the year this week. And yesterday, in a move that screamed desperation, Foxconn announced that the plant's 400,000 workers will receive a 20 per cent pay rise.

What lessons can be drawn from this? First, this is a significant embarrassment for Apple, which has always claimed to be scrupulous about conditions in its supplying factories. Second, this is not a specific problem for Apple. Sony, Dell and Nokia products are also manufactured at the same plant. Third, this is not a problem specific to Foxconn. There are reports from across China of Dickensian conditions in factories, of discrimination, long hours, low wages and inadequate training.

It is no mystery how we arrived at this. Tens of millions of migrants have left the Chinese countryside in the past decade to look for work in the booming industrial cities. It is hardly surprising that with so much labour on the market, so many international companies have outsourced their production to China. It should not be surprising either that workers are often treated badly. Beijing's autocratic political elite is terrified of the social unrest that would result if job creation dried up. They are therefore suspicious of anything – including unionisation and better working conditions – that might curb raw growth rates.

Yet this is not a simple story of the exploitation of vulnerable masses. Although the wages to factory workers are low, they are better than workers would get if they remained working the land. And there are some signs of reform. There is a minimum wage. The normally quiescent Chinese media are beginning to demand better conditions for workers. And scandals in recent years over tainted baby milk and toxic children's toys have concentrated official minds on the need to regulate.

The rise of China is a complex, paradoxical story. It has been a great economic liberation, but one tightly controlled by a one-party state. Optimism exists alongside desperation. China will, ultimately, find its own path. But China is not an island. Its economic model is still founded on the rock of manufactured exports. This gives Western consumers leverage. There is scope to demand, through pressure on firms like Apple, decent working conditions for Chinese workers.

It has been all too easy in recent years for those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world to ignore the human cost of the production of our digital cameras, mobile phones and computers. Out of sight, out of mind has been the practice. This week, we have been forced to acknowledge the human cost. Let popular pressure for change now follow.