Color China Photo, via Associated Press
An explosion last May at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China, killed four people and injured 18. It built iPads.

This item below was the NYT’s quotation of the day:

“If Apple was warned, and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” said Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a group that advises the United States Labor Department. “But what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.”

So in the last few weeks, while I’ve been pondering an iPad purchase, I’ve been following the media debate on why Apple doesn’t have more product manufactured in the US. That debate, as you may recall, was focused by President Obama’s asking Steve Jobs in February 2011 what it would take for Apple to make its insanely popular products in the US, given that almost all are produced overseas, and many in China. Jobs’ response, according to one person who was present that night, was “Those jobs aren’t coming back”.

Perhaps it was optimistic to expect that traditional high-paying, middle-class creating jobs could be restored to our economy. As this graphic explains, only a tenth of US workers are employed in manufacturing, vs 6 out of 7 in the service and retail sector. I suspect that Canada would be similar if one took the resource sector jobs out of the equation and just looked at manufacturing vs service/retail.

But in China, where the bulk of Apple’s manfacturing is done, the jobs created there are not the traditional commute to the plant from your suburban home kind of job that the baby boom generation in North America enjoyed. As Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher explained in the NYT last week, Apple’s success story in getting products to market assumes that you can turn 8 thousand workers out of a dormitory in the middle of the night, give them a cup of tea and a biscuit, and then put them on an assembly line for twelve hours to implement whatever change the iPhone design team has thought up.

And its not just workers warehoused in barrack blocks that makes China attractive for companies like Apple that want agile, turn-on-a-dime manufacturing. It’s also tens of thousands of qualified engineers to manage and guide that assembly work, many of whom hold degrees at western universities who accept foreign students en masse because they need the tuition income and because US and Canadian kids aren’t applying in sufficient numbers to keep those universities open. And the answer to that problem is downstream somewhere in the education system and in homes that don’t value education. But that’s another story and I digress.

Over Christmas I tried reading Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s “That Used to Be Us”, a book which begins with a comparison of glittering infrastructure in Chinese cities that have seemingly been built overnight, versus decaying subway stations in US cities that never seem to be repaired. Friedman’s tone was recently lampooned by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy as “Oh My God the Chinese Are Eating Our Lunch with Environmentally Friendly Chopsticks”. Other reviews have been unkind, challenging Friedman’s solution that millions of high paying green jobs can somehow be created in North America by “collective action”.

I’m a little more generous to Friedman since he raises the challenge that we need to find our mojo, but I’m not sure that the answer is “Wow, look at China, we need to be like them because they are who we were”. Turning workers out of barracks in the middle of the night sounds more like the gulag than Detroit in its heyday. Today the NYT ran a piece detailing the harsh and often unsafe conditions in factories making Apple product in China,which brings us back to the opening quotation by Nicholas Ashford as to the relativity behind safe working standards depending on what country you live in and buy from. Apple supplier factories in China have been known to employ underage workers, have appalling accidents with toxic chemicals, and occasionally explode.

Mind you, industrial sites here in Canada occasionally explode, leading to intense media scrutiny, regulatory investigations, and sometimes even improvements. The NYT is making the point that in China, this kind of scrutiny is less intense and less effective, and therefore the conditions under which the products we want so much are troubling.

The ethical question for us as consumers is, how troubling? If one is wealthy enough, as I am, to consider buying an iPad, then I am probably spared from the wholescale change that has wiped out millions of traditional jobs in North America. The problem is that those moved overseas, but for millions of overseas workers, the comfort, middle class lifestyle and safety regimes weren’t also ported over from North America. And hence the ethical dilemma for those of us willing to think about it.

The NYT article on Chinese factory safety ended with this quotation:

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive.

“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

Is that Apple exec right about you and I?

0 Responses

  1. My current phone is on the way out and I will need a replacement. It's not going to be an immediate purchase, but given that I would find it very difficult to work without my phone* it's not on that I will be able to put off much longer.

    I was considering an iphone 4 or a 4s. I may be reconsidering it now.

    *because of the comms, maps,internet and camera.

  2. You have made me feel truly ashame from owning an Ipad, an Iphone and three Ipods. Great blog entry Padre; as an economist (and a former investment banker) I keep wondering how long this economic system that only promotes accelerated inequality will last before a new "October revolution" happens and what on earth can replace it before that happens

  3. Thanks for reading, gents. Annibal, I share your emotions, because I own an iphone (it owns me may be what my wife says), have an ipod, and want the ipad. It's hard to be a citizen of the world today and not want these things and the many benefits they bring. Like Conrad, I wanted a phone that gave me a GPS, camera, ebook reader, ipod, etc. Nice things to have. I am sure the people toiling in China want them too. The question is, I suppose, how can we all enjoy these things in a way that is reasonably equitable? That's the big question of our age.

  4. ;_;

    I recently purchased a new iPod Nano. I received the 1st gen nano, a 2gig, the Christmas they came out (2005? 2006?) and it only bit the bullet last year when I was running off the bus to get to a dance class on time. It fell, hit the sidewalk, and it's never been the same since. If it hadn't have taken a fall, I think it would have kept on playing forever. I bought my new iPod nano just before Christmas at the Canex here in Shearwater because it was on sale for freakin' $99.99. I was in the market for a new mp3 player because my phone wasn't a good mp3 playback device (I use an Android phone) and I need a good, reliable piece of kit for my new upcoming part time career (I'm training to be a fitness instructor). I looked at lots of devices, but ultimately went with that iPod in part because of it's sale price, in part because it seems to be industry standard- most gyms will have an iPod dock.

    The ethics of overseas production are something that I do think about a lot. That said, I'm *poor*. I don't have a lot of options when I make purchases. I have to strike a balance between quality and budget. It isn't always feasible for me to purchase what's ethical because I can't afford to make an ethical choice. I'm on the management committee for a community band and we recently ordered hoodies. One band member wanted to know if they were made in China because she wouldn't take one if we were. Well, we ordered them from a local business who does the screen printing locally- but who knows where he gets his stuff from.

    And the other thing is, Chinese people with crappy jobs need their jobs too :s If we all just started 100% locally made didn't import anything, what would happen to those workers? As much as I hate to say it, 12 year olds working for a dollar a day are doing that because they need that dollar a day. I think it's more important to encourage these companies to treat their overseas production staff well, to provide them with a living wage and a safe work environment and the training they need to stay safe and productive. I used to buy clothes from Primark all the time when I lived in England. When it came out that Primark was employing sweat shop labour, public pressure made them cave and close their sweat shops in India. I couldn't help but think, what happened to those women who needed that job beading junk onto tank tops who got fired because some white people felt bad? A lot of these workers don't have better jobs they can take.

    It's all so complicated and I fear there will never be a right answer in my lifetime 🙁

  5. This has been a thoughtful conversation and I thank you all for having it here. Appreciate the journalist comments, but I simply compile other people's thoughts and try to connect the dots.

    Jessica, good post. I think you make a good point that "crappy jobs" are still jobs to the people who have them. It's likely that many of the people working at places like Foxconn in China are one generation removed from peasant farming in rural China. They are part of a huge transition in China's demographic that may well lead their children to better lives.
    There's no question too that the developing world benefits hugely from the flood of smart phones and other products coming from China. I've heard a lot about how cell phones are used by millions of Africans for banking, the way we use our bank debit cards. Cell phone technlogy allowed Africa to vault over the development stage that we went through in the 20th century where everyone had to be wired together through phone landlines. Cell phones are also ennabling the whole microbanking phenomenon that has huge potential to lift people out of poverty. So plusses as well as minues.

    Gene, that was a helpful link. The comments are especially interesting.

  6. Every once in a while I feel guilty about voluntarily walking out of a well paid position early with cushy pension and a health plan. Lazy, lucky, self indulgent me!

    But on the other hand that decision came with a lot of opting out and adjusting to life not far off the poverty line. No more fancy phones, no more cross continent vacations and no indulging in the latest miniatures. Instead its recycle, make your own or find ways to make do without until you start wondering why you wanted the new toys in the first place.

    After nearly 3 years, it still feels good to wake up in the mornings and wonder what I'm going to do today instead of what I'm going to buy. Still seems like one of my better choices.


  7. I do believe that 10+ comments is a record for a post on this blog. Thank you all for the thoughtful discussion.
    And thank you, Ross, for your contribution. You've raised the elephant in the topic, really, because the whole question of who benefits from the relocation of production and manufacturing, whether the West or the East, depends on the West's insatiable consumption.
    You've challenged us to ask ourselves how much stuff we really need, whether in our hobbies or in our daily lives (as if there's a distinction between the two!). If I were braver about doing without, I'd envy you more.

  8. I read the Apple articles and am a real Mac fanboy. The problem is so much stuff is made in China but Apple are probably more ruthless than they need to be. I bought a Playbook and it's died on me while in Asia, so I have to exchange it when I get back. Nothing from Apple has been a problem. I think we all need to read articles like that one and insist all corporations are more accountable and understand the human price of cheap products.