A Symbol of Labor Exploitation
In 1984 I bought one of the first Apple Macintosh computers to roll off the line in Cupertino, California. At 132 K ROM (hardly enough to power a toaster by today’s standards), the Mac came loaded with a serviceable writing program (Mac Write) and an ingenious graphics program (Mac Paint) and the age of personal computing was born in earnest.
In those days Apple was a fiercely independent alternative to IBM, the corporate beast that monopolized the computer industry. Apple was a symbol of American ingenuity and innovation. Apple users were loyal to the company and we believed that Apple was loyal to us. We remained loyal even through substandard products because we believe that Apple had a social consciousness.
I don’t know when Apple changed. It doesn’t really matter. But when Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address, trumpeting the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as a job creator, I knew something was rotten to the core. Daniels was right about Apple job creation. The trouble is some 95% of those jobs were created in China under deplorable conditions.
In America the very same politicians whose policies wreaked havoc on the global economy spend most of their time attempting to exploit the devastation by attacking what remains of the rights of labor. Too often on the so-called liberal establishment falls silent on the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining (an alternative to a general strike).
In Europe the same voices that claim to represent the left are planting their staffs with the anti-labor forces of austerity.
The recent New York Times exposing Apple’s exploitation of Chinese labor (“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, January 21, 2012) reads more like a rationalization if not an outright defense.
On international labor rights the Times is as bankrupt as the Greek treasury. An unashamed proponent of Clintonian Free Trade, the Times argued with an unmistakable tone of admiration that Chinese workers at substandard wages (the leading Apple manufacturer, Foxconn Technology, recently received two wage increases from an equivalent of $135 per month to roughly $300 per month) were so motivated that they could be roused to work at a moment’s notice.
They frequently work 24 or 36-hour shifts at tedious jobs with little complaint (except for the occasional riot or threatened mass suicide). The story noted that there were plenty more sweatshops making complementary products just down the road.
The Times glossed over the rumored suicide rate and the fact that the company running the largest sweatshop on the planet had to install nets outside its walls to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths.
The Times’ Nicholas Kristof and his fellow compassionate compliciters will tell you that the workers are better off as exploited labor than they otherwise would be. They could be back on the farm tending rice fields at a meager existence or worse; they might be on the streets of protest in open rebellion.
There is little to distinguish the defense of Apple and labor exploitation from the antebellum defense of slavery. The advocates of slavery also argued with characteristic audacity that the slaves were better off than they would have been on their own accord. They had roofs over their heads, clothing, medical care and meals on the table. They were slaves, subject to beatings, inhuman treatment and whatever torture can be imagined, but at least they had food to eat.
Their white masters could rape the women at will and the men could do nothing about it but at least their basic needs were fulfilled. If not for a few rabble rousers, malcontents and radical idealists, the slaves would have been happy to live out their lives, generation after generation, in contented servitude.
We recognize now that such arguments are an affront to human decency but in the land of antebellum slave plantations they were tolerated if not embraced.
It is by no means admirable that workers can be roused from sleep at any of the day or night to work another twelve-hour shift. It is not laudable that workers can be forced to work in unsafe environments with toxic chemicals and hazardous waste. It is not acceptable that children of twelve are subjected to these conditions. When workers riot and threaten mass suicide it is not a sign of relative wellbeing.
I know that Apple is not alone. Foxconn has contracts with Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Motorola, Nokia, Toshiba, Samsung, Amazon, Nintendo and IBM.
Apple has responded predictably to the negative publicity of the Times report and the potent monologue of Mike Daisey now playing at the Public Theater in New York (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”). It has hired an “independent” watchdog to monitor and report on labor abuse in China and elsewhere. Unfortunately, that organization receives its funding from the industry.
Apple perceives labor abuse as a public relations problem because Apple does not care about workers in China or anywhere else. Apple cares about the bottom line and Apple is afraid that this wave of negative publicity will forever tarnish its image and affect its profit ratio.
I know the futility of calling for a strike. We are addicted to our intelligent devices and there are no viable alternatives. We cannot for a moment believe that the sweatshops in Indonesia or anywhere else where the economy thrives on cheap labor is any better than those in China.
I am calling for a different response and one that would have an impact on the bottom line. We do not need the latest gadget. We do not need the immediate upgrade to the latest technological innovation. We can wait.
That is what I am suggesting that every conscientious consumer should do. Delay that next purchase. Delay it as long as possible. Make that purchase only when it is necessary.
If enough people take this approach, Apple and all the others will notice. They will make changes. They may not move their plants back home immediately but in time, who knows?
If they were to move back home, you can bet that those 750,000 Chinese jobs would translate to 500,000 robotic devices and a handful of managers and maintenance crews.
So be it. If they continue to operate as they are, they need to know that the fight for labor rights does not end at our shores.