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Exploitation in Supply Chain.

Exploitation in Supply Chain.


  1. Comparing Chilean Copper Miners and Chinese iPhone Assemblers:
  2. The Chilean copper miners and Chinese iPhone assemblers both face challenging working conditions, but their experiences differ in several ways.
  3. Chilean Copper Miners: These working-class Chilean men work in the copper mines, an occupation that is dirty, dangerous, and physically demanding. They are exposed to health risks due to the toxins associated with mining. The work involves heavy lifting and operating massive trucks, which poses safety hazards. Moreover, mining work can be cyclical, with fluctuations in demand for copper affecting job security.
  4. Chinese iPhone Assemblers: The majority of these workers are young women in China who labor under harsh conditions, including long hours and overcrowded dormitories. The subcontractors often impose terrible working conditions to secure contracts. The demanding workload and strict targets can lead to stress and exhaustion. Workers face limited opportunities for personal time or social interaction.
  5. In both cases, the workers are vulnerable due to their economic circumstances, but the nature of their work and the gender dynamics differ significantly. Copper miners face physical dangers, while iPhone assemblers experience harsh conditions driven by the need for efficiency and speed.
  6. Exploitation in a Long Supply Chain:
  7. The extended supply chain involved in the production of smartphones allows companies to benefit from the exploitation of homogeneous worker populations worldwide in several ways:
    • Cost Reduction: Companies can exploit regions where labor is cheap, keeping production costs low. This ensures higher profit margins for the company.
    • Limited Labor Protections: In many countries with cheap labor, worker protections, and labor unions may be weak or nonexistent, making it easier for companies to maintain control over wages and working conditions.
    • Race and Gender Dynamics: Companies may target specific racial or gender groups for certain types of work, assuming that these groups are more willing to accept poor working conditions due to limited alternatives or social norms.
    • Lack of Accountability: The complexity of the supply chain can make it challenging to trace responsibility for labor exploitation, allowing companies to distance themselves from these issues and avoid negative publicity.
  1. In essence, the extended supply chain allows companies to exploit regional disparities in labor rights and living standards, maximizing their profits while pushing the human and social costs onto vulnerable populations. A global race often drives this exploitation to the bottom, where companies seek out the cheapest labor and fewest regulations to maintain their competitive edge.

Exploitation in Supply Chain.






As you are sitting on a computer reading this lecture, I want you to stop and think about all of the commodities around you right now (clothes, shoes, phone, etc).  What groups of people made these items?  Who made it possible for these items to reach you here in Long Beach?  Just for the sake of narrowing down all the “stuff” in front of you, let’s just look at one particular item: your smartphone.   As sociologists, we can trace the labor that contributed to producing and transporting your phone so that you could purchase it.  Many of these workers remain “hidden” from our consciousness when we by a phone in retail stores.  Retail workers are the only workers who we see throughout the entire global supply-chain.  We are so disconnected from the people behind our commodities that many of us never think about the labor behind everyday items in the Global North.

What countries were the raw materials from your iPhone sourced from?

In order to determine that, we first have to determine the various elements needed to make an iPhone.  Your phone contains a number of metals (copper, lead, tin, silver, nickel, chromium, cadmium, etc.) that are used to make conductors, batteries, video screens, etc.  Chile produces the majority of the world’s copper and much of it is used in electronics including your phone.  Here is a picture of a Chilean copper mine:

Who are the people that extract this copper?

Well, it is almost an entirely male-workforce composed mostly of working-class Chilean men.  The work is dirty, dangerous, and hard.  The copper is loaded into massive trucks that are almost two stories tall. Your phone also contains a great deal of plastic.  India is the #2 plastic producer in the world.  Plastic production is a very nasty enterprise.  Workers are exposed to a great deal of cancer causing toxins and toil often under unsafe conditions.

Who assembled your cellphone?

Most of the workers who assembled you IPhone were young women in China.  They labor under extremely difficult working conditions, work upwards of 70+ hours a week, and in many cases live in overcrowded dormitories at the factory.  The subcontractor who Apple hired has a reputation for imposing terrible working conditions on their employees (that is how they won the contract).  See  report produced by China Labor Watch https://chinalaborwatch.org/iphone-11-illegally-produced-in-china-apple-allows-supplier-factory-foxconn-to-violate-labor-laws/

Once the phone is assembled, where does it go?

From the factory, an all male workforce of working-poor truck drivers bring the loads of phones to the port of Shenzen.  From there, the containers are loaded onto massive container ships which then head to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles (the largest ports in the US).  Filipino men comprise the world’s largest contingent of seaferers (the workers who labor on the giant container ships you see when you look out into the ocean in Long Beach).  They face very difficult working conditions. According to the International Transport Federation: “A survey among Filipino seafarers (the largest seafaring labour force) showed that 70 per cent had been denied shore leave in the past 12 months, leaving them with little opportunity to call their families and to talk to people other than their fellow crew members.  Several attempts have been made to improve and reform the conditions under which seafarers work, but the process is undermined by the dominance of economic considerations over concerns for the welfare of seafarers. The fact that the majority of the labor comes from poorer nations with little power, while the majority of ships are ultimately owned and controlled by ship owners in the influential industrialized economies, should not be overlooked.
Once the container ship reaches the Long Beach port, the container with your phone is unloaded by longshoremen.  Longshoremen are the workers who unload cargo ships.  They are the only workers in the entire supply chain who make a decent living – this is because they have a strong union.  The longshoremen (90% of whom are men) place the containers onto trucks.  Port truckers then move the container to either a rail-yard or drive it to a distribution center.

Port truckers are mostly male immigrants from El Salvador.

According to the LA Times “These mostly immigrant drivers are trapped in a largely unregulated system in which many are designated independent contractors by their employers, who then deduct all kinds of expenses from the fees they pay the drivers. Drivers see their checks shrink because of deductions for such things as the cost of fuel, truck maintenance and insurance. Drivers have told me that, as a consequence of all the deductions, their first 30 to 40 hours of work each week go to paying for the trucks they drive. Only after that are they earning money for their families.”  Since the US Government classifies the port truckers as owner/operators, this makes it impossible for them to form trade unions to better their wages and working conditions.  Their misclassification as owner operators was a way to destroy the port truckers union in the 1980s.
The port truckers then drive the container to warehouses distribution centers in the Inland Empire.  You can see the distribution centers when you are at the 60 freeway at the I-15, look and you will notice large windowless buildings – those are distribution centers sorting out all the goods that go to retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Who are the workers who labor in the distribution centers?

Most of the workers in the warehouses in the Inland Empire are low paid Latino workers, many of who are undocumented.  They are all hired through temporary employment agencies, which makes it very difficult for them to unionize and fight for better wages and working conditions.  According to NBC news: “An economic juggernaut in the arid flatlands east of Los Angeles that employs about 100,000 people, the Inland Empire warehouses are a staging point for Apple computers, Gerber baby clothes, Polo apparel and other brand-name imports. They handle goods from Asia that come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to be distributed around the U.S.
According to court documents and interviews with workers:
Crew leaders such as Soto were under orders at some warehouses to force workers to sign blank time sheets, a tactic that made it easier to cheat employees out of their rightful pay.
Workers often were paid only for the time they spent loading and unloading trucks — not for the time they put in sweeping warehouses, labeling and restacking boxes or waiting to find out if they would be assigned work.
High heat in the warehouses and constant pressure for speed created safety problems.
https://warehouseworkers.org/reports/From the distribution centers, the phones are sent to retail stores where you purchased your iPhone.  The vast majority of the workers who made your phone, transported your phone, and mined the material to make the phone were toiling under very, very harsh working conditions.  Most of whom are not earning a “living wage”.  Also, think about how all these different workers often belonged to specific racial-gender-national groups – this demonstrates how race, gender, and nation play a huge role in shaping exploitation for goods that we consume in the United States.  The only workers who were making a decent living in the entire supply-chain outlines above were the longshoremen, members of a strong trade union.  While imperfect, trade unions give workers the best chance to resist deteriorating working-conditions and exploitation.


1. Select two groups of workers that were mentioned in the case study to compare. After reading about their working conditions via the hyperlinked articles (contained within the case study), discuss some of the challenges in their working conditions.

2. Next, reflect upon the use of a long supply chain of workers involved in the production of your smartphone. Lastly, how do companies benefit from the exploitation of homogeneous worker populations (race/gender) around the world?
Your initial response should be 250 words in length, reflecting on the prompt above.
Reply to at least one classmate’s post. Your response to your classmate’s discussion should be around 100 words.

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