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?