How do you like them Apples?
A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times had article on the hazardous conditions that Chinese workers labor under when they’re making the wondrous electronic devices that power our lives and our livelihoods.
The principal focus of the article was Apple, but it could have been any one of a number company that produces electronic gizmos. The Sony laptop I’m writing this post on was Made In China. As was the Logitech mouse I use because the built-in touch-pad mouse is so awful. (It may be good for something, but that something sure doesn’t have much if anything to do with composing full sentences.) My Blackberry doesn’t even bother to state the obvious, but my money’s on Made In China there, too.
So, whether you’re listening to tunes, texting away, killing time playing games, catching up with your sister, watching TV, or even working, the device you’re doing it on was probably made in a factory in China that may well be the 21st century equivalent of Triangle Shirtwaist.
Yes, as we’re loath to admit to ourselves, all our whiz-bang gear comes at a cost:
…the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions…
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.
More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.
But, as Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, was quoted as saying:
…what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business “practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.”
It’s inevitable that production will move to where it can be done the most cost-effectively, even if there is a whopping “out of sight, out of mind” cost that gets swept under the table.
And so we saw all those New England shoe factories and textile mills close down and move south.
This happened in my lifetime.
When I was a kid, we made a trip each summer to Ware and/or Fall River to buy tee-shirts at factory outlets that were attached to the actual factory. One summer, I worked in a shoe factory, doing finishing work on combat boots.
So I know that, while New England’s mills weren’t fun-fun places to work, they were – at least in my mid-century experience – relatively clean and relatively safe. People may not have made all that much, but it was a living of sorts.
But the costs of production were lower in the south, where people more desperate for jobs, any jobs, would work longer for less, and where the states were less likely to have pesky regulations of their own, or to tightly enforce pesky Federal regs.
But even the Old South couldn’t compete with China, so there the jobs went.
As citizen consumers, we get to enjoy the benefits: lots of stuff, cheap.
So what if it’s not built to last? Let’s face it, America may run on Dunkin’, but the world’s economic order runs on built in obsolescence based on a) shoddy goods, and b) the relentless desire for the newer and shinier that’s been hammered into us since Madison Avenue was a pup.
Apple is supposedly working on improving its supplier standards, but their main focus is on cost, profitability, time to market, innovation. Worker health and happiness? Must have in the US – just think of all those Happy Apples manning Apple stores – less important when it’s worker standing on his feet all day in China.
Customers [that would be us] want amazing new electronics delivered every year…
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”
“If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?” the executive asked…
Good point, that.
“We’re trying really hard to make things better,” said one former Apple executive. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”
Yes, indeed. Workers are often forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week in physically taxing positions. After hours, they go home to apartments where Apple supplier Foxconn might cram 20 workers in to three-room-flat. Worse yet:
…Employees [at Foxconn] who arrived late were sometimes required to write confession letters and copy quotations.
Some in the article maintained that Apple is trying to do a better job with respect to working conditions among its suppliers; others claim that Apple doesn’t try all that hard, and that other companies – HP and Intel were cited, as was Nike – do a far better job of pushing their suppliers to conform to standards, while making allowances for the costs of improving working conditions and allowing their suppliers to make reasonable profits.
Sounds like Apple is really the Walmart of the technology world, continuously pressuring its suppliers to cut their costs, and allowing them minimal profit margins – the better to keep Apple’s profits high.
So suppliers often try to cut corners, replace expensive chemicals with less costly alternatives, or push their employees to work faster and longer, according to people at those companies.
“The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,” said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. “And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.”
And the bottom line is, of course, the bottom line. Said one current Apple executive.
“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”
Of course, if it’s not China, it’ll be someplace else.
As wages, expectations, and working conditions improve in China, lower skilled production jobs are moving to places like Vietnam and Bangladesh. From there it’ll no doubt be to Africa, where working for a pittance in a dangerous factory is a step up for gleaning in the municipal dump.
But as long as we get our new goodies, what do we care?
And, much as I’d like to, I’m not going to go all goody-goody here.
I still love my iPod. I still wish I’d replaced my old Blackberry with an iPhone rather than a new Blackberry. I will get a notepad at some point, and the iPad is pretty darned nice.
I will say, however, that when I go for my next laptop – which should be any day soon – I will give another look to HP. I’ve had problems with their products in the past, and I sure hope they’ve fixed the faulty adapter problem that plagued them (and me). But if they’re a notch better than the next guy at how they treat their offshore workers, I’ll at least consider them.