Where (Else) Your Gadgets Come From

You've heard about Shenzhen. Now let's take a tour of the the world's other electronics manufacturing megacities.

Recent coverage of Apple's labor problems in China has been so focused that it almost makes the problem seem solvable. If only Apple would fix its policies, if only Foxconn would ease up on its workers, if only China would tighten its labor regulations, then we could buy our electronics without guilt.

But this is not the way things are. China is not the be-all, end-all of worldwide electronics manufacturing. The country is responsible for twice as much consumer electronics manufacturing as its nearest competitor, but only about a third of the total, according to Reed Electronics Research. In other words, there is only one Shenzhen, but there are dozens of smaller Shenzhens-in-waiting, almost-Shenzhens, and waning Shenzhens. Their factories’ windows are as opaque as China's, and their workers are often paid even less. And they’re as far from gadget buyers’ minds as the Guangdong province once was.

Some are ready to accommodate a possible influx of miserly corporate refugees from China, as the country's labor standards rise along with its worker compensation and overall standard of living. If the day comes that major Chinese manufacturers feel pressure to relocate to lower costs, they will, says Philipp Rühle, and analyst at sustainability ratings firm Oekom Research. "They have the money, they have the power, so they can move. It's no problem for them."

Here are five lesser known manufacturing megacenters, where tens or hundreds of thousands of workers are already making, assembling or fixing the gadgets you use every day.

Population: 4.7 million

Manufacturers: Ericsson, Foxconn, Motorola, Nokia, Dell

Weird fact: Home to Tollywood, the Tamil version of Bollywood, which is the Hindi-language version of Hollywood

Why companies love it: Sometimes referred to as the "Detroit of Asia," Chennai and surrounding areas are well-equipped for large scale electronics manufacturing (Ford, BMW, Hyundai, Nissan and Caterpillar are still there). Anyone who wants to build a factory there can benefit from a custom-tailored Special Economic Zone, free of pesky things like "taxes." Education levels are high.

Rajesh Chakrabarti, assistant professor of finance at the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business, told the Wharton School of Business' India Knowledge site: "The cultural resistance to layoffs is common in both [China and India]. But it is likely that in China, the skilled labor market is perhaps reaching some kind of saturation -- at least without much greater internal migration -- which may not be the case in India. So wage increase demands may be stronger there than here." According to a Monthly Labor Review study conducted in 2005, the average wage for working in manufacturing in India as about 91 cents an hour. For production workers in the electronics sector, it's under 80.

A terrible story, from The Hindu (July 2011):

While establishing clearly the presence of child labour in North Chennai a rapid assessment study conducted in that region by an NGO shows that the majority of children under 14 are employed in textile stores and mechanic and automobile shops...The study managed to find out that children worked an average of 10 hours everyday.

And another, from the BBC (July 2010):
The iPhone manufacturer Foxconn has temporarily shut a factory in India after some 250 workers fell sick. Spraying of pesticide could be the reason, and local authorities were investigating the incident, the Taiwanese company said in a statement.

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