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Apple and Workers' Rights

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Nearly a year ago, Apple faced the beginnings of a PR catastrophe. Wired magazine published an expose on Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer that handles the final assembly of the iPhone and many other Apple products. Seventeen people had jumped to their death off the roof of their Shenzhen plant over the preceding few years, blaming grueling working conditions and low pay. The most shocking part of the story was Foxconn’s response. Instead of addressing the workers' concerns, the company installed a perimeter of safety nets around the building in order to catch suicide jumpers.

Foxconn was in the news again two weeks ago, when an estimated 150 employees at an Xbox manufacturing plant stood on the roof of the building and threatened mass suicide. So reporters began looking back into the conditions at Foxconn factories, and what they found is not surprising; it’s still an awful job.

Mike Daisey, a self-described Apple fanatic, travelled to China for This American Life to discover how his favorite products were being manufactured. Now, according to Daisey, workers are asked to sign a “no suicide” pact before they are hired. He found 13-year-olds working 12 hour shifts (Chinese law prevents anyone from working under the age of 16, though this is rarely enforced); some adults worked 36 hour shifts. Some long-term employees had dismembered limbs and serious mental health problems. Mr. Daisey wrote and starred in a one-man play based on his findings, titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which is restarting a run at New York’s Public Theatre this month. The New York Times published an even more detailed report of conditions at Foxconn factories.

What really grabbed my interest was a story on The Atlantic Wire yesterday, which reported that thousands of Chinese laborers lined up outside an employment agency when recent openings at a Foxconn plant were announced. This seems to disrupt the recent narrative on Foxconn working conditions. Thousands of Chinese want to work there. Many commenters on the NYT’s piece, and many from within China, agreed with the sentiment, casting Apple as a philanthropist for offering such promising opportunities for employment.

When criticizing sweatshop conditions abroad and the phenomon of globalization that begot their rise, economists and casual observers are quick to point out that workers take these jobs willingly, and that these jobs are better than no jobs. If the jobs weren’t an improvement, why would thousands be lining up outside Foxconn?

They are an improvement. Indeed, there are much worse places to work in China. Foxconn offers better working conditions than many smaller factories and certainly, for most, preferable to rural poverty.

But this line of ethical thinking is deeply flawed. When examining the ethicality of labor conditions abroad, you must consider them on a case-by-case basis, i.e. individually and out of context. Does the fact that workers at another factory may be working 40-hour shifts make a Foxconn worker’s 36 hour shift any more acceptable? No, it does not. If you agree that Foxconn working conditions are unacceptable, it shouldn’t matter how much better they are comparatively. If a situation is not just, the fact that its “more just” than any other situation shouldn’t have any bearing; justice is always the goal. 


(photo by Tony Law, courtesy of Wired)