By James Kwak
Last week, This American Life ran a story about the Chinese factories that produce Apple products (and a lot of the other electronic devices that fill our lives). It featured Mike Daisey, a writer and performer who traveled to Shenzhen, China, to visit the enormous factories (more than 400,000 people work at Foxconn’s, according to the story*) where electronic products are churned out using huge amounts of manual labor.
I’m sure that most of us already realized, on an intellectual level, that the stuff we buy is made by people overseas who, in general, have much less than we do and work harder than we do, under tougher working conditions. It’s harder to ignore, however, listening to Daisey talk about the long shifts (up to thirty-four hours, apparently), the crippling injuries due to repetitive stress or hazardous chemicals, the crammed dormitories, and the authoritarian rules. At one point an interviewee produces a document, produced by the Labor Relations Board (with the name of the Board on it): it’s a list of “troublemakers” who should be fired at once.
The question that Ira Glass asks at the end is how we should feel about all of this. Although Apple is at the center of the story—at one point Daisey shows his iPad to a man whose hand was destroyed by a machine that makes the iPad, and he called it a “thing of magic”—they seem to do a reasonable job of policing their suppliers and insisting on improvements to working conditions, at least compared to other companies. But still the number of violations doesn’t go down from year to year.
Glass quotes Paul Krugman talking about how sweatshops (in Indonesia, I think), though brutal, were still better than the alternative for the people working in them, and how they contributed to economic development. He also interviews Nicholas Kristof, who agrees that working in these factories is often better than working in rice paddies—especially for young women, who can earn more money and thereby improve their bargaining power. But is that enough? Daisey doesn’t think so.
I have a MacBook Pro and an iPad (and an LG phone, and a Samsung monitor, . . .). While I think OS X is far better than Windows (or Linux if, like me, you’re not a power user), I would gladly switch back if I had confidence that my computer’s manufacturer was an appreciably, demonstrably better employer than Foxconn. And I would pay more, too, just like I pay more for free-range eggs and organic food (which I buy for the environmental impact, not the health benefits). But while there are certification programs that provide some confidence that your coffee isn’t the product of imperial exploitation, I’m not aware of such programs for electronics. Maybe there are already, and I just don’t know about them.
Given that anyone buying Apple products is already paying a hefty price premium, you would think at least some of us would rather pay that premium for better labor protections.
* The TAL staff fact-checked everything they could fact-check in the story, and found only one small error (having to do with the size of the cafeterias).