Recent revelations about the deplorable working conditions at an Apple factory in China provide a cautionary tale about globalization and consumerism.
On Jan. 26, the New York Times ran a front-page article that exposed some of the facts of life within Apple’s Foxconn Technology factory in Chengdu, China. These include underage and underpaid workers, excessive overtime, seven-day workweeks, overcrowded dorms and dangerous conditions.
One day last May, a fire broke out in one of the buildings where employees polished thousands of iPad cases a day. “Two people were killed immediately and over a dozen others injured,” the story said.
“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” Li Mingqi, a former Foxconn employee, told the New York Times.
Another former employee added, “You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless” if suppliers don’t make “enough profit to treat workers well. If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”
Early in 2011, Steve Jobs met with President Obama on economic growth. He told the president he had no intentions of bringing Apple’s manufacturing back to the United States. Furthermore, he warned that unless the United States became more business-friendly, it stood to lose its competitive edge against countries like China. He noted how easy it was to build a factory in China, where he didn’t have to deal with tough labor laws or environmental protections or unions demanding better wages, benefits and safe working conditions.
Apple, one of the richest and most successful companies in the world, gained its wealth and power, in part, off the sweat of exploited Chinese workers.
Apple is not the only electronics company doing business in China. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others manufacture there. All of these companies benefit from the appalling working conditions in China.
Neither the American public nor the labor movement here would stand for such conditions. But China is eager to overtake America as the No. 1 economic power in the world, and is willing to do so at all costs. That is why business and China make such excellent partners. Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms took effect in the 1980s, multinational corporations have poured into China to take advantage of its vast pool of cheap labor and natural resources.
At a time when America sure could use some manufacturing jobs to boost our own economy, it would be patriotic — and humane, given what we know of the overseas workplace — for those companies to bring some of those jobs back home.
And if they don’t, then we — the wired, high-tech consumers — should be more conscious about the products we purchase.
Winifred C. Chin is a research affiliate at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute at New York University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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