Once More With Feeling

“Where do we go from here?”

What are working conditions really like in the factories that make our electronics, and should we feel guilty about it? The retraction of Mike Daisey’s story from January’s This American Life prompts this question. In the third half of the TAL Retraction show Charles Duhigg, co-author of the NY Times investigative series on conditions at Foxconn, tries to answer both of these questions, and I thought it would be a good idea to present the basic arguments here.

Duhigg classifies working conditions at these factories into two categories. The first is unpleasant or harsh working conditions: long hours, low pay, repetitive labor, etc. The second, smaller category are outright safety violations resulting in worker injury or death.

There have been some recent reports of safety violations that have resulted in two explosions at different factories. The second of these, months after the first, has been in the news lately, as it has recently come to light that Apple inspectors had just checked out the plant mere hours before the explosion. The root cause of both explosions was build up and ignition of aluminum dust, a problem which can be easily addressed with proper ventilation. These incidents, while isolated, are appalling especially given the amount of time between them to correct the fault.

But again, the amount of safety violations is relatively small. The real story is the amount of hours workers are required to work, and the conditions of that work. Duhigg states that worker overtime is one of the biggest problems, and one that can be looked at from two perspectives. The workers may be demanding this overtime in order to earn more money for their families back home, or the workers may be coerced into worker longer hours for fear of job loss or not being able to get overtime when desired.

Duhigg then outlines what some of the costs would be to manufacture the iPhone, and other products like it in America. Labor is not a significant part of the cost of an electronic device, and estimates vary widely as to how much more it would cost in America (from $10 to $65 a device). Some might consider this a lot, but when we’re talking about iPads, which already cost in the $499 – $649 range, we’re not significantly changing the market for those devices by passing that increased cost fully onto the consumer. If an iPad cost $50 more or less, I’m still not buying one.

Do we really need any of these things? My experience, and the experience of most people I talk to, is that we live just fine without an electronic gadget until we buy one. Then it becomes a “need” and we cannot find a way to de-integrate it from our lives. Checking e-mail everywhere we are is not a necessity, even in business. Some people (managers/CEOs/project leads) need real time communication, but those of us in the cubicle trenches, we can wait until we can check it on our desktops or laptops.

Duhigg’s final argument is I think the most interesting, and one I’ve touched on a little before. We used to have conditions like the ones in China during the industrial age of our country. And then we had a labor movement, we formed unions, and we fought for better working standards, better pay, saner hours, healthcare. We can manufacture these products under American standards, it just might cost us a little more to do it and force us to separate our needs form our wants. If we don’t, then we are exporting the harsh labor conditions we fought in this country to get rid of. In another century, who will the Chinese export their labor standards to?

Are working conditions something we only care about for ourselves? We’re a nation that seems to care about others. We  try to spread democracy, give humanitarian aid, prevent genocide, and in general spread the American dream beyond our borders. Why then do we think differently about our gadgets?

Maybe that’s the kind of thinking differently Steve Jobs meant.

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