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China and Labor: Apple's Not the Only Problem, But Is It the Only Solution?

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 9, 2012 5:00 AM PT

I found CNN's recent report on Foxconn's poor working conditions at a manufacturing plant (aka "manufacturing city") in China to be astoundingly irritating. Not because they used "Apple" in the headline and focused on the iPad to snag attention. I was irritated because the story, both in print and the video version, totally missed obvious points in order to try to paint Foxconn working conditions as terrible.

China and Labor: Apple's Not the Only Problem, But Is It the Only Solution?

The article gets off to a lazy start with its headline, "Apple manufacturing plant workers complain of long hours, militant culture." This sounds a lot like working for Apple in the United States. Or Oracle. Or Microsoft. Pick any tech giant in a highly competitive environment and there's going to be a lot of long hours. And some of these companies even have nasty and mean dictators masquerading as CEOs.

So far into this story, I'm mildly annoyed, but when the only source turns out to be an 18-year-old college student snagging a one-month job, I'm thinking, "This is the best CNN can do? CNN represents some of the brightest, most dedicated journalists in the world, and they're piling on Apple for headlines?"

The young woman would talk, but not go on record with her real name, so CNN called her "Miss Chen." She was willing to talk about Foxconn but offered little real detail. In fact, it sounded like her job was a perfect starter job for a young woman -- bad, sad and an incentive to go to college and find something better.

But How Bad?

As a poor college student, Miss Chen took a one-month position at Foxconn with promises of great benefits and little overtime. As it turned out, she got overtime -- 60 working hours a week -- and few great benefits. So maybe she was lied to. As near as I can tell, this sounds like an awful lot of American jobs, particularly factory jobs, as well as all sorts of other kinds of jobs. Most of the people I know who don't have jobs in government (state, city or federal) tend to work more than 40 hours a week, if they don't have second jobs, and many of these workers are on a flat salary, so overtime pay is nonexistent.

But I kept reading.

Turns out Foxconn has surveillance cameras, expects obedience out of its million-plus employees, and fires those who don't like their jobs. Hmm. Sounds familiar enough.

Near the end of the article, she says, "It's so boring, I can't bear it anymore. Every day is like: I get off from work and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It is my daily routine, and I almost feel like an animal."

And when asked why humans do machine-like work at Foxconn, she said, "Well, humans are cheaper."

Miss Chen, apparently, was putting stickers on iPad screens.

I Don't Get It

I get how plenty of news outlets and bloggers, etc., seem quite happy to jump on Apple's supply chain working environments in countries with cheap labor. The equation is simple: Apple + Controversy = Page Views = Advertising Revenue = Writers/Reporters Get to Keep Their Jobs. That's irritating enough, and I'm guilty of it myself, though I tend to focus on the positive, what's cool or interesting about Apple or the products it produces. Heck, I'm an unabashed Apple product enthusiast. So what don't I get? How Miss Chen's experience is terrible.

As near as I can tell, it's not. More to the point, it's probably good that she got the job and had a terrible experience. Bad jobs can give you clarity and act as an incentive.

When I was putting myself through college, I worked multiple part-time jobs to get the flexibility I needed to go to school, and in the summers I regularly worked massive overtime six days a week in a hard, dangerous and labor-intensive industry (logging) to earn money for school. In fact, I started working in the woods when I was in high school. Long, repetitive, boring hours. Rain, hail or wicked hot sunshine. Over five summers, I had no fewer than a dozen hazardous situations in which I might have been killed or seriously maimed had I been less lucky or less quick. Falling trees, tumbling rocks, missteps near cliffs, snapping cables, swinging culverts and shifting logs with running chainsaws. I was happy to have the job. And if I complained? I probably would have been laughed at ... or fired. When I stopped doing that, I worked multiple part-time jobs while attending college and took out school loans, too.

Like Chen, all these jobs did was reinforce the fact that I needed to go to school and become a knowledge worker, not a laborer.

It doesn't sound like her job was much worse than many we have in America, say, at a chicken slaughterhouse.

Why Do We Need to Lean on Apple?

Next, I was full of righteous outrage. (Just a little, but a little righteousness is usually not a good thing.) Why? We can lean on Apple, but why isn't anyone getting after China here? This is the Chinese business model -- the country's best resource is a combination of cheap, plentiful labor with factory upon factory ready to rock and roll with whatever the rest of the world needs. If the Chinese can't be bothered to care about their own people, why do we have to?

And if the Chinese government doesn't seem to care about the little people, why doesn't Foxconn step up and do a better job? Actually, despite some high-profile suicides and the collective suicide bargaining chip used by 150 or so workers at a Foxconn facility that makes Xbox 360s, Foxconn might be a better place to work than some nearby manufacturing facilities.

Then I'm still indignant -- and really tired of seeing all the bandwagon blog and news stories pointing to the CNN story cluttering up my online experience -- and I'm thinking, "Great. If Apple keeps getting all this bad press, when are they going to invest in more robots for automation and simply remove the need to have humans doing some of these jobs anyway? How is that going to help hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers? Isn't a job better than no job?"

After I cooled down, I remembered reading about Steve Jobs and President Obama and some articles and musings about Apple hiring more Americans. The problem was finding enough skilled (and scalable) labor. Then I remembered the New York Times article from late January that I only skimmed: "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work." I found it again and read it. It covers the economics and business reasons for outsourcing manufacturing to Asia. Great article. It also managed to point out that Apple's success has also led to some coveted Apple Store retail jobs (go Geniuses!) as well as created a whole industry around building mobile apps.

But I Couldn't Stop There

If I had been able to stop digging, I would have been able to continue living in a less complicated world. But I thought, "If the rich bastards at Foxconn don't care about their employees, who does? Isn't it the responsibility of a people's government to step into a situation that's bad for the country and fix it? Then I remembered that these factories are in the middle of the world's largest authoritarian regime ... what do we expect, really? Isn't this the country that let a toddler get run over in the street and left her lying there to die?

I thought, what if Apple could do some good? What if Apple has the power to do good ... and simply ignores the opportunity? Is there cosmic karma that handles this sort of thing, like if you see a lost child in the park and simply keep walking and talking on your iPhone because a lost child isn't your responsibility?

Apple could. The company's official statement in response to the issues at Foxconn is this: "We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made. Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple."

That's all well and good, but what if Apple could be a cultural force that could try to change how Chinese workers see themselves and the world they live in? Can the guys running one of the world's largest and most profitable corporations actually be leaders for the good of humanity? Or can they only end up leading us more deeply into a dystopian existence?

It Gets Worse

While Foxconn seems to be responsible for producing a mere 40 percent of the world's electronic goods, might this huge company represent just a small bit of the huge Chinese workforce? Maybe things are better or worse in China. We don't really know. Then I read The New York Times' "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad." It's a scathing indictment, but it also didn't mention all the accidents that happen on the job in the United States. The difference, perhaps, is the perception that no one with any power really cares about Chinese workers.

Last of all, I found a radio excerpt of Mike Daisey's popular one-man monologue show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Daisey actually visited Foxconn, and his portrayal is amazing. You can listen to a radio excerpt or read the transcript of a section, but either way, it might change how you think about your electronic gadgets. Daisey has a way of articulating that the Foxconn way is something different than the sort of things we experience in crappy jobs elsewhere.

And then, on his blog, in response to a Q&A, Daisey makes what I think is his most important point:

Q: How much of what we see at Foxconn is steeped in Chinese culture? Chinese politics?

Not as much as one might think ... what is important to understand about Foxconn is that it is a Taiwanese company, and the tension between Taiwanese management and Chinese labor is part of its equation. Culture and politics inform any situation, but this one is informed more by the economic pressures that drive these workers into the cities to make a new life for themselves.

As much as I think about this topic, I still don't believe that fixing these problems is Apple's responsibility. And yet, Apple might be the only company with enough clout (and money) to lead by example and make serious changes.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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