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Mike Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory
January 11, 2012 2:04 AM   Subscribe

Act One of this week's This American Life finds Mike Daisey, self-described worshipper in the Cult of Mac, visiting Foxconn, where many of their products are manufactured. It's an incredibly well told and heartbreaking story.

Act two is the fact check.

Foxconn has been experiencing a rash of suicides because of worker conditions.

His show restarts a run at New York's Public Theater later this month.
posted by nevercalm (221 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Foxconn is a massive company that manufactures electronics for many, many companies (including Apple), so it is kinda dishonest of TAL to call Foxconn the "Apple Factory", with the implication that this is all they do.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:28 AM on January 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


"The guys we hired to do bad things do bad things for other people too!" is hardly a defense.
posted by DU at 2:41 AM on January 11, 2012 [43 favorites]


65-80% of Apple's products and components come from Foxconn according to some analysts, so "Apple Factory" may be unfair in the sense that there are other partners to Foxconn, but not unfair if meant in the sense that any purchase of an Apple product results in profit for Foxconn as well.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:42 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or to put it another way, Microsoft doesn't base its brand image on being a purveyor of a shiny happy technocratic future utopia the way Jobs did with Apple.

Deep down, I'm pretty sure Bill Gates knows he's Darth Vader, and late in life he's doing tons of charity stuff to try and mitigate that fact. Jobs liked to pretend he was Luke.
posted by bardic at 2:50 AM on January 11, 2012 [22 favorites]


Jobs liked to pretend he was Luke.

I'm prepared to accept Woz as Yoda, though.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:53 AM on January 11, 2012 [68 favorites]


BP says that in essentially every Apple thread in which Foxconn comes up. It's true, but excuses nothing.
posted by JHarris at 2:55 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Whoever invented the fucking Zune is definitely Jar Jar.
posted by bardic at 2:55 AM on January 11, 2012 [13 favorites]


No, that's the fanboys.
posted by ryanrs at 2:57 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Previously (a review of Daisey's show).
posted by daniel_charms at 3:00 AM on January 11, 2012


"The guys we hired to do bad things do bad things for other people too!" is hardly a defense.

Apple doesn't hire Foxconn so that its workers can commit suicide. No company that hires Foxconn to make Android phones does so, in order that its workers kill themselves. Not even Google-Motorola.

I'm not defending Foxconn, but I would question the integrity of people who wouldn't otherwise get readers/viewers without sensationalism and dishonesty of this sort. Let's face it, calling Foxconn the "Apple Factory" is just red meat for people who don't like Apple users. What TAL is doing here used to be called yellow journalism, and it is just as pernicious today as it was a hundred years ago.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:10 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Whoever invented the fucking Zune is definitely Jar Jar.

The inventor of Microsoft's Kin is a better fit.
posted by Harpocrates at 3:15 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, they do a fact check in part two, if you'd explore all the links, you'd know that.

Jeez man, it's every apple thread with you, huh? If he wasn't dead, I'd think you were actually Steve Jobs. And I say this as a guy who has an iPad, two iPhones, multiple laptops and a desktop all made by Apple, and who is that asshole who writes "get a Mac" to anyone with computer questions.
posted by nevercalm at 3:15 AM on January 11, 2012 [28 favorites]


The part that really hit home for me in the podcast was Mike Daisey's reminder that everything is still hand made. It's a nice reminder. We definitely forget when we are so far removed from the source of production.
posted by aychedee at 3:23 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


What TAL is doing here used to be called yellow journalism, and it is just as pernicious today as it was a hundred years ago.

TAL's "yellow journalism" resulted in the eventual resignation of Judge Amanda Williams, judicial tyrant who used the drug courts in her jurisdiction as a tool of draconian punishment. Her jurisdiction, Glynn County GA, is the one in which I live. Their reporting has made life substantively better for the people where I live.

So no, I don't think I'm going to be just accepting your impugning their ethics here. Here's hoping some of that rubs off on all of Foxconn's employees, regardless of which faceless corporate monster is exploiting them, and regardless of however much that means electronics prices go up.
posted by JHarris at 3:27 AM on January 11, 2012 [51 favorites]


It's true, but excuses nothing.

Your facts mean nothing here sir!

I heard this over the weekend and I too bristled at the Apple angle. It's silly, simple minded, lazy and at this point a cliche.

That said, the perfermance delved more into this being a problem of China, where labor can be cheap and the West's desire for cheap products and willingness to look the other way. The program did mention steps Apple has taken to make things better and Daisey did say he was happy about that. But he also wondered if it was enough. He seemed a bit axe grindy.

The most chilling part of the program was the fact checking portion. It included comments by various economists who essentially said 'As bad as this is, it's better than the alternative', a sentiment repeated several times by workers. The second most chilling part was Daisey's Chinese translator, a native of the country. At one point, after they had visited other companies and talked to workers, she asked him "Is it possible that all those people are mentally retarded?" It was her first upclose look at the widespread labor abuses in China and she couldn't swallow what she was seeing and hearing very well.

Excellent piece that was about way more than Apple.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:28 AM on January 11, 2012 [15 favorites]


It seemed to me It became about Apple bc they guy spent so much time talking about how obsessed with Apple products he was, and when he heard about it, he thought about all the perfect bevels and every detail just being right, total attention to detail at every level, so how did they not know?

He also talks about all the other companies too.
posted by nevercalm at 3:43 AM on January 11, 2012


Huh. I never knew that Foxconn made apple products. I always thought of them as the manufacturer of terrible, cut-rate PC components that I never buy.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:47 AM on January 11, 2012


Well yeah, Apple doesn't show Chinese people in factories hand assembling their products. No company does. Spoils the magic.
posted by aychedee at 4:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Blazecock Pileon: "Foxconn is a massive company that manufactures electronics for many, many companies (including Apple), so it is kinda dishonest of TAL to call Foxconn the "Apple Factory", with the implication that this is all they do."

Sure but there's no "Cult of HP". Nobody thinks that somehow Samsung or HTC are special companies. No one feels like they have a special relationship with LG. Apple is held out as a company that's not a soulless corporate entity run by ruthless business people who wouldn't sell your grandmother into slavery just to meet the next quarter's revenue. And obviously that's not true, they're exactly the same as any other tech company.
posted by octothorpe at 4:15 AM on January 11, 2012 [25 favorites]


TAL explicitly names several other brands that Foxconn manufactures.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:26 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Apple doesn't hire Foxconn so that its workers can commit suicide. No company that hires Foxconn to make Android phones does so, in order that its workers kill themselves.

Transparent attempt to make this an "iPhone vs Android" issue. I'm not a fan of either device and so I'm not falling for your derail.
posted by DU at 4:28 AM on January 11, 2012


It's not enough to put Apple's feet to the fire! Blazecock Pileon must be singled out for derision as well!

You guys sound like the Red Guards.
posted by Scoo at 4:30 AM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


What was horrible for me was realizing that we live in a slave world. This program brings it home: if you own a machine made at this company (I have a mac myself) you've contributed to the death and degradation of other people.
.
posted by angrycat at 4:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [13 favorites]


Oh, this thread is going to be a delightful combination of two groups: People who did not listen to the podcast (granted, it's a very long thing and you're all very busy writing in threads), and people who are going to comment on those people.

The podcast is actually rather complete on both the sides of the quality of Daisey's essay, and fact-checking his statements. I don't know if much will continue here beyond that.

ding, ding - moderator please!
posted by jscott at 4:32 AM on January 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


High profile brands need to strike a high profile alliance to demonstrate to the consuming public that they are aware of these issues and are interested in making things better. It will mean higher prices, though.

Still, in a later part of that TAL episode it's mentioned that even with their humanitarian shortcomings, the factories offer some means of advancement for people living in remote areas still blighted by Maoism. Perfect meet good, et cetera.

/posted from my Samsung charging on my Mac
posted by Burhanistan at 4:42 AM on January 11, 2012


I really have to snicker like a cartoon bad guy's dog when the claim is made that people who enthusiastically use Apple products somehow don't understand that Apple is a soulless corporate entity. Of course we know that. Corporations exist to make money. The bigger they are, the less the interests of the workers count in the face of that money. This is, of course, true of virtually every big company, but Apple's a compelling target because people love nothing more than a comedic cliche, and the cliche of the dull-witted hipster style maven haplessly falling at the feet of the almighty Steve Jobs is just a comedic cliche that the people who love to constantly point out that they are, in fact, the actual smartest guys in the room cling to like a meth habit.

We get it, anti-Apple people—you're smarter than us, you're more genuine than us, and more level-headed than us. Thanks for the reminder. We're just silly prancing ninnies who want our tools to be designed as if every detail wasn't chosen by a committee for strictly financial reasons, and who want our tools to work. Stupid fanboys. How dare we spend our time working instead of compiling Linux code to make open source, DIY, handmade computers sort of work properly some of the time!

I found the piece interesting, but the problem with it is that it really isn't about the Foxconn factory at all. It's about Mike Daisey's shocking religious awakening (referenced very directly, as it happens) that the silly fixation he had with things might have been a silly fixation after all. Apple has become the metonymy for tech companies in general, but your Xbox, your Dell, your Wii, your Samsung Galaxy Super Duper Aren't Apple Fans Hipster Fucktards IIX, and pretty much every technical thing you own comes from shitty overseas factories. In that, it should have been a hatchet piece against that overall social insensitivity, not hurf durf, Apple people, Apple is evil, because we already knew that. Corporations exist to make money, even ones with stellar design departments and world-beating bullshit eliminators.

Of course, in the eighties and nineties, when the PC folks would all hurf durf at me over my spending way, way too much money on my stupid little Mac, which won't even run DOS, for Pete's sake, mine was made in a high-tech, humane, domestic factory staffed by reasonably well-paid adults, while everyone's Packard Bell metal boxes the size of freight containers and components for their build-it-yourself-and-maybe-it'll-work homemade no-name PCs were made, you know, elsewhere. You expect everything in the world to be cheap and you get exactly what you ask for, which is slaves, misery, and exploitation.

Singling out one corporation for being a corporation, though, just seems a little fanatical.
posted by sonascope at 4:48 AM on January 11, 2012 [46 favorites]


And don't forget that coltan sourcing is far more problematic and opaque than Foxconn. At least there seems to be labor reform coming to life in China.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:49 AM on January 11, 2012


How dare we spend our time working instead of compiling Linux code to make open source, DIY, handmade computers sort of work properly some of the time!

The components of which are made by Foxconn -- if you're lucky. That Arduino board you love? The chips for that used to be made in France, England and Germany. Now, they're all outsourced to Chinese and Malaysian fabs. The Colo Springs Fab is still running for prototyping and DOD work, because, well, you know, we need military stuff.
posted by eriko at 4:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also, it's unfortunate that the thread is focusing on "the Apple factory" aspect rather than the actual decent reporting. The media like to us Apple because it is such a readily identifiable and flagship brand. The media also loves to troll, and NPR admits regularly to doing so in their own pseudo-snooty way.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:59 AM on January 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Apple doesn't hire Foxconn so that its workers can commit suicide. No company that hires Foxconn to make Android phones does so, in order that its workers kill themselves. Not even Google-Motorola.

No, they all hire Foxconn to make stuff for them at the lowest possible price, and they don't give a damn that Foxconn treats its employees so badly that they throw themselves off the building.

What you are doing is called spouting absolute utter nonsense, and it is just as silly in this post as it was in the last Apple post.

If you listen to the podcast, which is excellent, you will find it well researched, nuanced and balanced.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:02 AM on January 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


Transparent attempt to make this an "iPhone vs Android" issue. I'm not a fan of either device and so I'm not falling for your derail.

Feel free to pick any other non-phone-device, like a Kindle, a generic laptop running Linux, or Xbox360 or PS3 which is manufactured in Foxconn factories, among many other products. Yep, Apple users suck for buying phones made by slave labor, etc., but exactly where did you think all your other consumer electronics come from?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:02 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


What was horrible for me was realizing that we live in a slave world.

Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius.

What is interesting to me is that Foxconn is a Taiwanese company apparently exploiting Chinese workers on the mainland and the Chinese government does nothing. It would seem Nixon was wrong about the Taiwanese.

At least there seems to be labor reform coming to life in China.

This made me laugh. China is already communist country. They've smashed the gang of four, they've achieved the four modernisations. What more do you expect?
posted by three blind mice at 5:03 AM on January 11, 2012


so it is kinda dishonest of TAL to call Foxconn the "Apple Factory"

If Mike Daisey got interested in the whole thing because of he really likes his XBox, TAL could have called it "Mr. Daisey And The XBox Factory". But hey, guess what, it's Apple products he really likes, and so that's his angle into the story.
posted by kmz at 5:04 AM on January 11, 2012 [16 favorites]


We are like a strange detached version of 19th century cultural looters. Back then it was "how many people died to get this rare orchid specimen" now it is "how many people died so I can play skyrim on my 50" tv". Sure people in china profit from manufacture, just as people in other countries profited from selling cultural treasures. I don't know what to think, we are all here posting on whatever devices we use so are likely all implicated.

I better listen to the podcast, maybe they have some answers for me.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:07 AM on January 11, 2012


I think I discovered bunnie's blog on Metafilter. It's written by the guy who designed the Chumby; he moved to China to supervise manufacture. His stories about this are pretty interesting.

I heard this story over the weekend, and it never occurred to me that the choice of Apple was anything beyond picking a major electronics manufacturer whose products Daisey owned. Still, sad story -- really bad working conditions, which is at least better that what came before.
posted by bluefly at 5:11 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's amazing how people can be bitter about Apple vs. PC for twenty fucking years.
posted by smackfu at 5:11 AM on January 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


We get it, anti-Apple people—you're smarter than us, you're more genuine than us, and more level-headed than us. Thanks for the reminder. We're just silly prancing ninnies who want our tools to be designed as if every detail wasn't chosen by a committee for strictly financial reasons, and who want our tools to work. Stupid fanboys. How dare we spend our time working instead of compiling Linux code to make open source, DIY, handmade computers sort of work properly some of the time!

Where to even start? You think Apple doesn't focus on the bottom line? You think that attacking other people in the same boat is a defense? Even the tired "I work for a living!" fallback of the idiotic Republicans puts in an appearance here.
posted by DU at 5:14 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Where to even start? You think Apple doesn't focus on the bottom line?

The place to start is to read my comment, where I say "corporations exist to make money" not once, but twice. Do you think that Apple concentrates on design because they're led by magical angels? Do you think we think that? Apple concentrates on good design because there's a market for good design. Apple exists to make money. That doesn't mean that they don't also produce good design. Was I not clear enough?
posted by sonascope at 5:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


I'm going to borrow the term used for Real Madrid vs Barcelona football matches for this flavor of thread. So far this has been one of the better El Classicos in my recent memory.
posted by Edogy at 5:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Microsoft doesn't base its brand image on being a purveyor of a shiny happy technocratic future utopia the way Jobs did with Apple.

Well it's some kind of technocratic utopia, but not one I'm hoping to live in.

Also I hereby declare all Apple Rox/Apple Sux arguments pre-Godwined for your convenience.

both perfectly safe YT funny videos
posted by spitbull at 5:30 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


How is it that this discussion has degraded into a petty Mac vs PC catfight? We *ought* to be talking about labour rights. Or how the movement of manufacturing overseas to China en masse to the point that it's now almost impossible to manufacture an object like a smartphone in the west because all the suppliers are in the east, so that even a manufacturer who wants to opt out of Chinese manufacturing probably can't manage it (or only manage it at huge expense) affects these issues: how it's almost impossible to opt out of this worker exploitation as a western consumer even if you want to.

sonoscope, you make some great points, then you go spoil it with a bunch of snide asides about anti-Apple sentiment that hasn't even been expressed in the thread. Get that chip off your shoulder! (Same goes for you BP...)
posted by pharm at 5:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [38 favorites]


[If there's any chance that this could be more than people rehashing the same old fight, that would be keen. There's a lot more that can be discussed here.]
posted by taz at 5:34 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I must have missed the "Apple Factory" part of the program. Daisey's speaking style annoys me, but at the same time this is a very powerful piece. Daisy is absolutely right that both tech companies and customers want to turn a blind eye to the working conditions which produce their toys.

I have been thinking about buying an eReader, but how can I do that, knowing that if it was produced in an American factory with such working conditions we would be protesting outside its door and calling for boycotts?
posted by muddgirl at 5:39 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The fact check was interesting and telling. Apple's PR-bot points out that it does spot-checks on its manufacturers, with teeth including canceling the relationship. It claims in its 2011 report 127 inspections with 10 child labor violators facing consequences. That report also details responses to the Foxconn suicides and n-hexane poisoning (not to say that those responses are adequate, just that they know). But what's obvious from the numbers is that Foxconn is so big that Apple trying to enforce its standards becomes impossible; it can't plausibly replace most of its assembly overnight.

For those tl;dnl to the podcast, the summary is that a comedian just walks up to a major assembly plant in the Guangdong Pearl River delta special economic zone and in 1 day discovers practices that US brands claim they forbid in the manufacturers. Since he is a random idiot with no journalistic skills, his conclusion is that the US brands know and do not care. He later pretends to be a US buyer and gets the official factory tours, which are also not fun.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:41 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


How is it that this discussion has degraded into a petty Mac vs PC catfight?

Or, looked at another way, how could it not?

How many hours a day does the average person here interacting with, reading about, watching attractive people on television use or otherwise engaging with personal computers and smartphones? And how often does one meet, speak with or hear about any given Chinese factory worker? The 39 minutes of Act One of this episode of TAL seem to be quite a serious time commitment, based on the thread so far...
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:44 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


(In the interests of "being the change..")

So, to follow up: *is* it possible to source "ethical electronics" in the modern era as an ordinary consumer? It seems to me that even Apple, for all they make some effort to keep their suppliers on the straight and narrow, are simply unable to prevent abuse by their Chinese / Korean suppliers, yet they cannot go anywhere else as that's where all the parts are: moving manufacture elsewhere would introduce massive costs. It therefore follows that ordinary consumers have no way to avoid buying the output of (effectively) slave or abusive labour practices & large companies are effectively trapped there by the economics of the supply chain.

Perhaps Apple alone could manage to transition away from China if they chose to? They already fund much of the plant manufacture in the first place IIRC. Difficult to do when so much of the expertise you need is in Shenzen of course: Network effects in action.
posted by pharm at 5:46 AM on January 11, 2012


This discussion has gone pear-shaped.
posted by Pendragon at 5:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


> This made me laugh. China is already communist country.

I didn't say that it was there yet, or that it was coming from the upper echelons of the central communist government. But, there are stirrings at the grassroots level. Combine that with efforts that companies like Apple are making to only do business with factories that meet standards and you have the makings of reform sputtering to life. I'm confident that conditions in China will improve. However, as they improve manufacturing will move on to countries where corporations can get more bang for their buck and the cycle will continue.

> The 39 minutes of Act One of this episode of TAL seem to be quite a serious time commitment, based on the thread so far...

I heard this in the car!
posted by Burhanistan at 5:50 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


By namechecking a ubiquitous product line that is top-of-mind for a huge number of consumers, it is more likely that some good can come out of this tragic abuse of other humans.

I don't see anything wrong with this.
posted by batmonkey at 5:52 AM on January 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Does anyone know when Apple stopped manufacturing in the US? I know Jobs was very into it even in the NeXT era, since his bio talks about the fancy factory he had built in CA (including what color the robots had to be painted!)
posted by smackfu at 5:57 AM on January 11, 2012


My views are complex and nuanced.

- This is a real problem.
- Daisey is a bit of a hack. He exposes a real problem, but his ways are a little manipulative. He's not a journalist, and the fact-checking of TAL partially deconstructs his fallacies, his uneven categorizations, his lumping together of different factories (Foxconn and underground sweatshops), his singling out of Apple (even though he has to admit, in the second part, that they're the western company that does the most to root out underage employment and unsafe conditions - of course there should be unions and more controls, but would Apple be able to do that without sacrificing its whole business?).
- I don't think that this TAL is yellow journalism, nor that it's Pulitzer stuff. The fact-checking is mostly nice, but they give exposure to Daisey, with its uncomfortable mix of personal story and bad journalism. It's a useful, flawed episode.
- Maybe it's unfair to single out Apple. But maybe we should expect more of it. They make a lot of profit. Could they make a little less, but still lots, AND still thrive AND create better conditions for workers? I really don't know the answer, because there aren't many places where you can rapidly and secretly build tens of millions of cutting edge devices. Maybe that should be Apple's next revolution: after the phone, the tablet, the tv (please!), reinvent the manufacturing process.
- The most troubling, unsettling thing, to me, is around minute 53:20, where Paul Krugman (via quotation) and Nicholas Kristof (in person) voice the opinion that sweatshops make everybody better off in the end. That makes me uncomfortable.
posted by Baldons at 5:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Singling out one corporation for being a corporation, though, just seems a little fanatical.
posted by sonascope


Singling out one corporation for defense seems a little fanatical. After listening to this, I was thinking about the guy whose hand was smashed in the press (who was then fired). The people whose hands were shaking from exposure to n-hexane. The 12 and 13 year old girls putting in weeks of 16 hour days.
posted by 445supermag at 6:02 AM on January 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


> The most troubling, unsettling thing, to me, is around minute 53:20, where Paul Krugman (via quotation) and Nicholas Kristof (in person) voice the opinion that sweatshops make everybody better off in the end.

I don't think they quite meant that. More that the factories are realistically a (perhaps only slightly) better alternative for people living a hardscrabble existence. They are also a means for workers to pay for their children's education. I think that given the choice, people would rather have more economic security and freedom than eke out a rough life on subsistence farming and the like. So, one set of difficult circumstances is swapped out for another, with the new set being the track that would put future generations closer to parity with the consumers buying what is made in the factories. There's no easy solution.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:03 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe that should be Apple's next revolution: after the phone, the tablet, the tv (please!), reinvent the manufacturing process.

Foxconn is busy replacing workers with robots and other manufacturers will be sure to follow, leaving a lot of unemployed laborers. In the long-run, automation on this scale is probably going to be a much, much bigger story than Daisey's one-man show.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:10 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


also:

Apple doesn't hire Foxconn so that its workers can commit suicide.

This is probably the dumbest thing that anyone has ever said on metafilter in defense of Apple.
posted by empath at 6:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [13 favorites]


Foxconn is busy replacing workers with robots and other manufacturers will be sure to follow, leaving a lot of unemployed laborers. In the long-run, automation on this scale is probably going to be a much, much bigger story than Daisey's one-man show.

The rhetorical backflips you engage in to defend poor labor conditions are kind of sickening. You should be ashamed.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 6:22 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


My suspicion (hope?) is that Foxconn is investing in robots not because they think they'll be cheaper than their current workers, but because they can see that somewhere down the line, in the next decade or so, the better employment options available elsewhere to the workforce available to them on the open market will mean that the price of employing manual Chinese labour will be higher than the cost of a mechanised production line.

In other words, it's a sign that the current employee abuse is a transient thing, which will only last so long as there are no other better options for those workers & Foxconn's executives can see a time coming when that will no longer be the case.

It doesn't excuse the way they currently treat their workers of course.
posted by pharm at 6:25 AM on January 11, 2012


Foxconn is a massive company that manufactures electronics for many, many companies (including Apple)
Think Different The Same
I'm going to borrow the term used for Real Madrid vs Barcelona football matches for this flavor of thread.
Nah, this is the Old Firm Derby, El Classico is two doors down.
posted by fullerine at 6:25 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does anyone know when Apple stopped manufacturing in the US?

Elk Grove was opened in 1992 - which I think is the one you're talking about. At the same time, there or thereabouts, a factory in Fountain, Colorado also opened. The Fountain plant was sold in 1996, but continued to make product for another three years under contract, and Elk Grove closed in 2004.

Elk Grove employed about 1,500 people. I'm not sure about Fountain - it was the biggest of a number of Colorado high-tech assembly plants which collectively represented about 15,000 jobs. Demand for Apple products has skyrocketed since then, of course, so you'd need a lot more people and/or robots - which makes the scale savings on outsourced production greater.
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:28 AM on January 11, 2012


["white Americans don't care" derail deleted.]
posted by taz at 6:31 AM on January 11, 2012


I've been an Apple fan for a long time and I usually find myself siding with most of BP's comments but I don't see this as yellow journalism. This is was a spoken word performance by a guy who clearly states that he's not a journalist. His point of entry into the story was as an ardent fan of Apple products. I thought TAL did a good job of putting the story in context.

I think it's great whenever anyone is calling for simple worker protections. The concentration of wealth in Western society, and the transition to our shitty "service economy" has been made possible because of this cheap, faceless foreign labour.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:39 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The rhetorical backflips you engage in to defend poor labor conditions are kind of sickening. You should be ashamed.

Nearly everything I said has been a criticism of Foxconn as much as a criticism of one particular media outlet's coverage. It's kind of frustrating to be treated in discussions this way, but I am stating again that I am not defending Foxconn, this second time in unambiguous English language, so that this matter is crystal clear.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:40 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like the use of the royal "we" in terms of what Apple users do or do not know, or do or do not feel.

Fine. "We" non-cult members accept that our non-Apple nifty gadgets are also the result of sweatshop labor (typed from an iMac, btw).

Our lifestyles are built on the backs of others. The "let them eat cake" defense of a crappy sweatshop lifestyle being better than the alternative is shameful. If an MD at Goldman made the same argument about you and your (increasingly) shitty middle class job/lifestyle, you'd burn him at the stake.

For example: "sure, I got outrageously compensated - but the world needs me and the wonders of my financial engineering!"

Corollary: "sure, my (brand irrelevant) whiz bang gadgets wouldn't exist without sweatshop or even slave labor - but the world's better off because of my techno lust!"

Is it only not ok if YOU are the one that's being victimized?
posted by NoRelationToLea at 6:44 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


See, now in addition to race, class and various tribal affiliations, we've got brand loyalties to divide us from our common economic interests, too...

Demand for Apple products has skyrocketed since then, of course, so you'd need a lot more people and/or robots - which makes the scale savings on outsourced production greater.

People grossly overestimate how much manufacturing is automated and I half-suspect it's a misapprehension encouraged by the business community who'd like for consumers to imagine all manufacturing is performed by machines in gleaming factories somewhere without any human toil or suffering when the reality couldn't be more different.

It's funny all the talk about a future in which all our work will be done by robots--in its source language, the word "robot" originally just meant "worker." Turns out, in many cases, that's still what it means.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:45 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Right, so BP just has an issue with the messenger. The media outlet and manner in which the story is told is absolutely more important than the actual story, right?
posted by NoRelationToLea at 6:47 AM on January 11, 2012


Meanwhile, at Foxconn's Microsoft Xbox parts factory ...
posted by Bwithh at 6:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


People grossly overestimate how much manufacturing is automated and I half-suspect it's a misapprehension encouraged by the business community who'd like for consumers to imagine all manufacturing is performed by machines in gleaming factories somewhere without any human toil or suffering when the reality couldn't be more different.

Like this Macbook manufacturing video, for instance. The only people they show are taking parts in or out of automated machinery.
posted by smackfu at 6:51 AM on January 11, 2012


Since apparently it isn't obvious, the reason he chose Apple is because if he choose Dell or HP, the first comment on this thread wouldn't be someone rushing to defend it, leastwise someone who's avatar pic is the Micheal Dell or Meg Whitman.
posted by pwnguin at 6:53 AM on January 11, 2012


[Old & Busted: Apple discussions all about BP. The New Hotness: Stop it.]
posted by taz at 7:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


When the story about Foxconn suicides first broke, there was a rush of commenting about it. It was primarily a bit story because there were several that happened within a short time period. Subsequent investigation showed, however, that the suicide rate at Foxconn was lower than the average suicide rate. So, despite the unpleasant conditions, people are not being driven to kill themselves by Foxconn.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:06 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, and there was the Fremont, CA plant, of course - when that closed down, its jobs moved, among other places, to Elk Grove and Fountain, so it doesn't factor into the question of when Apple stopped manufacturing in the US, but it was something of a big deal at the time.

And I think that when Elk Grove stopped manufacturing, some of those jobs moved to third parties in Southern California, rather than immediately to China. But the move of manufacturing eastwards would have dwindled that over time. Obviously, there are still American jobs being created and maintained not just in the sexy R&D, design and software stuff, but in logistics, supply chain planning, warehousing, refurbishment and restocking... just like any other big importer.

Fun fact: when Superbowl XIX was held at Stanford, Apple supplied Apple-branded cushions to make the bench seating more comfortable - those cushions were stored in Building 4 on the manufacturing campus.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:08 AM on January 11, 2012


Singling out one corporation for defense seems a little fanatical.

Seeing as this FPP is about one corporation, it's pretty much designed into the argument, isn't it? Foxconn is not the "Apple factory," as the title of both the FPP and the TAL story—it's a monstrous factory that makes stuff for Acer, Amazon, Apple, ASRock, Asus, Barnes & Noble, Cisco, Dell, EVGA, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Lenovo, Logitech, Microsoft, MSI, Motorola, Netgear, Nintendo, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony Ericsson, Toshiba, and Vizio, to name a few. Apple is invoked because it's a way to generate a buzz, but it's a buzz that's not particularly constructive. Why isn't this about Foxconn, instead of a piece about some entitled Westerner who's shocked shocked to discover that his crap is made by slaves?

Your clothes are made by slaves, your shoes are made by slaves, your food is grown by slaves, your computer, your phone, and pretty much anything you'll find in your house is made in these conditions, but it's the system we all collectively asked for, with our obsessive bargain-hunting mentality.

The overall system, and the Western culture of techno-entitlement is the issue, but there's no alternative yet. Back when I bought my soul-crushingly expensive Mac SE/30, it cost a freaking fortune, but it was built here, in plants with decent oversight, by workers making a living wage, and it works flawlessly twenty-two years later, though it's relegated mainly to games and computing fourier transforms for additive synthesis at this point. Back in the day, Apple was a beacon, and now they're not, which is a sad, sad thing. If I defend Apple, it's because they weren't always like this, unlike most of the others on the list of Foxconn's enablers.

What's the alternative?

If I want to build my own computer with non-slave labor components, where can I go?

I'm not asking that rhetorically, either. For the musical work I do, I have chosen to buy instruments built in small factories by workers with a high standard of living, even when that's meant I've had to keep my studio small. It's not stopped me from my work, by and large, but there's been this massive sea change in the world over the last thirty years where all we chase is price. We shrug off design, we shrug off ergonomics, we shrug off reliability, and locality, and history, and always settle for sort of good enough, as long as things are cheap enough. In the world of musical electronics, there's this wonderful explosion of boutique technology built on small scales, with outstanding design, in places where we're not expecting a massive underclass to foot the bill. Of course, the semi-conductors aren't clean, but within the boundaries of the possible, there are alternatives.

When it comes to consumer electronics, though, this isn't true anymore. What's the solution? Once you've contacted the manufacturers of your particular tools to register your objections, do you just withdraw from technology altogether? A non-sale doesn't register with a corporation, unless it's a massive non-sale (like the surge from Godaddy for their corporate assholism) with some publicity, but how do you boycott everyone? Do we just go after Apple and assume that that's somehow going to change the whole industry?

What happens if we just retreat from these moral dilemmas, shifting down into simpler, more DIY lives, where we surrender access to things built on the backs of the underclass? In the West, we live in broken empires built on exactly those things, in nests feathered with the stolen wealth of vanquished people. We should know better, but we don't. Sometimes, though, you really get caught in a seemingly insoluble dilemma, which is how to change something that's so much bigger than you. How can we create a cultural imperative without getting bogged down in semantics?

A few years back, I had a sort of technological breakdown. I'd been struggling with a manuscript that was being mutilated by the process of writing on a computer, and so I dipped into my embarrassingly large collection of manual typewriters and starting doing all my first drafts with the gorgeous touch of Swiss-made keys, on a thing built by Alpine types with fancy pocket knives, and marking them up with red pencil and only using the computer at the end of the process. It was such a pleasant change that I had to wonder why everyone didn't give it a try, except it's obvious that it's just not part of our cultural consensus anymore. People think it's hard to type on a manual typewriter and easy to type on a computer. The alternatives are seen as sacrifices, not as ways of making things more of the present moment.

What if we just had better things that cost what they actually cost and lasted for decades? Can a corporate world run on that model? Would we be less inventive, and less progressive with the things we conceived? I just wonder, though sometimes all the wondering's enough to make my head hurt.

If we stopped buying everything Foxconn makes today, would the world get better or worse? Where would people suffer, and would it be in the short term, or longer?

If people don't care, how can we change their minds, and our own?

It's all just so enormous, this thing, almost beyond comprehension.

What future do we want?
posted by sonascope at 7:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [36 favorites]


What was horrible for me was realizing that we live in a slave world. This program brings it home: if you own a machine made at this company (I have a mac myself) you've contributed to the death and degradation of other people.

Maybe the troubling thing is that you've also contributed to the rising prosperity of these Chinese workers who, because of Western consumption, are increasingly make a better life not only for themselves, but their children, too. In places like China, Western consumer spending has contributed more to lift people out of destitute poverty than any government program of charity. We have the First World luxury of guilt tripping over how our disposable income gets allocated around the world. Spreading our disposable income around the globe is a step toward other countries such as China getting to enjoy in that guilt trip, too.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:17 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


people are not being driven to kill themselves by Foxconn.

That seems like a disingenuous conclusion to me. People are quite obviously being driven to kill themselves by Foxconn, they're just being driven to do it at a slightly lower rate than they'd be driven to kill themselves by life outside of Foxconn.

I.e., their recruiting materials could honestly say, if they wanted, "You'll want to kill yourself very slightly less than if you didn't work here." Doesn't sound great, put that way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:18 AM on January 11, 2012


CheeseDigestsAll: "Subsequent investigation showed, however, that the suicide rate at Foxconn was lower than the average suicide rate."

As the podcast points out, we don't know if those are the only suicides. We only know that a number of people have made a point to jump off Foxconn's roof, so much so that they installed nets. There could well be other suicides that don't make the newspapers.
posted by pwnguin at 7:21 AM on January 11, 2012


Apple is invoked because it's a way to generate a buzz, but it's a buzz that's not particularly constructive. Why isn't this about Foxconn,

Because no one knows whether the best way to improve this situation is by putting pressure on Foxconn, Apple, China, the US government, consumers, or what. So we should try all of those and more.

The only possible reason this focus could be a bad thing is if someone thought they could address the problem by buying a Dell or a Motorola instead of an Apple product, and I see no evidence that anyone thinks that is true.
posted by straight at 7:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Maybe the troubling thing is that you've also contributed to the rising prosperity of these Chinese workers who, because of Western consumption, are increasingly make a better life not only for themselves, but their children, too.

This is a false dichotomy. We can "spread our wealth around" to China while also advocating for better working conditions worldwide. We don't have to settle for the status quo of businesses moving their manufacturing or sourcing to the country with the laxest regulations.

In other words, we can help increase the prosperity of industrialized or industrializing countries while also helping them avoid the same pitfalls we went through during our own industrialization. There's absolutely no real reason why they should have to make the same mistakes we did, except that it's very profitable for big corporations to exploit such mistakes.
posted by muddgirl at 7:27 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Whenever there's a MeFi thread about the evils of fast food, one company gets singled out almost exclusively...McDonald's. We know that Burger King and Wendy's and the others are just as guilty, but still we only mention McD's by name.
So Apple gets the same treatment in the Foxconn threads. Certain well-known and tiresome Apple defenders need to stop taking it personally.
posted by rocket88 at 7:28 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I have a sincere question about how stories like this are put together. Why was it necessary to bring a die-hard loyal Apple fan--"self-described worshipper in the Cult of Mac"--to the Foxconn factory, instead of, say a long-standing critic of Apple? Or why not a representative of some US labor union? What does that add to the story?

In other words, what is the point of bringing the loyal fan to the factory, as opposed to the die hard critic? Why wouldn't the critics "See I told you so!" reaction be as powerful as the fanboy's reaction?

In my mind, the Mac worshipper is the person with the worst critical analysis skills of the others possible candidates I mentioned. They are the person who bought all the marketing hype and the PR without criticizing anything, and now that they see the factory, they will likewise be able to contextualize what they see as part of a broader problem.

It seems to me that this is a story that is turning on superficial emotional triggers, and not critical thought. what am I missing?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:44 AM on January 11, 2012


Nobody "brought" the loyal fan to the factory. Mike Daisey went because he wanted to.
posted by davidjmcgee at 7:46 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, the Whopper is tastier.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:49 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a false dichotomy. We can "spread our wealth around" to China while also advocating for better working conditions worldwide. We don't have to settle for the status quo of businesses moving their manufacturing or sourcing to the country with the laxest regulations.

We would like for that to be a false dichotomy. If it were, we'd have a better footing in criticism. However, it goes beyond. It is reality. Western consumer spending has already lifted untold numbers of Chinese to a place that might not have come about had spending not happened. And it might have not have happened had the West concern trolled itself preemptively into taking a moral high ground against Chinese labor conditions, to satisfy its own conscience.

It's not an easy question for people to face, on either side of the ocean. The good thing is that with rising prosperity, comes rising power to point out and address grievances.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So the Livestrong expose from earlier this week was criticised for being written by a self-admitted Armstrong critic, while Daisy's piece is unacceptable because it was written by a noted Apple fanboy.

On one hand we can dismiss criticism because it comes from a hater. On the other hand we can dismiss it for being emotionally manipulative.
posted by muddgirl at 7:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


And it might have not have happened had the West concern trolled itself preemptively into taking a moral high ground against Chinese labor conditions, to satisfy its own conscience.

It doesn't appear that we'll ever agree as to whether or not industrialization can occur alongside safe working conditions. I will refuse to agree that a country can't prosper without exposing its workers to, say, n-hexane poisoning.

If a country can prosper with safe and sane working conditions, it is exploitative to deliberately encourage them to do otherwise.
posted by muddgirl at 7:54 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


See, now in addition to race, class and various tribal affiliations, we've got brand loyalties to divide us from our common economic interests, too...

And

[BRAND] defenders need to stop taking it personally.


Credit where credit is due. Some brand marketers have done a hell of a job packaging gizmos as lifestyles and identities, which are much more compelling buys.

How is that marketing achievement connected to the systematic exploitation of cheap labor?

Nobody defends a gizmo. Everybody defends an identity.

posted by notyou at 7:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


If by enabling labor exploiting companies, we're encouraging a pattern of business practices that aren't in the long-term interests of any workers--i.e., if we economically reward companies for shopping around for cheap, powerless laborers with lower living standards and practices that replace existing well-paid workers with more poorly paid workers--we aren't lifting anyone out of worse economic circumstances in the big picture of things.

In the big picture view, we're making conditions for existing workers worse on average and undermining the ability of new workers to fight for better working conditions for themselves in the future, through these practices. No amount of gloss changes that. And the fact that some specific individual workers may benefit in the short term from these practices doesn't change the fact that we're all worse off over all.

The good thing is that with rising prosperity, comes rising power to point out and address grievances.

Except when that "rising prosperity" is systematically dependent on the workers not having power to point out and address grievances. As soon as these workers reach the point where they might want to do that, they'll simply be replaced by more eager workers who aren't as "spoiled." Functionally, these practices are an economic mechanism for routing around any increase in socio-political power that comes with rising worker prosperity. That's the whole point. These practices are a foil to labor's ever having or keeping any real, practical economic power. That's why even if they do lead to some individual's circumstances improving relative to their previous circumstances, they aren't in any worker's best long term interests.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:02 AM on January 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


In regards to the allegedly redemptive fact-checking act: this TAL episode could contain the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but I wouldn't know because I'm not going to listen to it. The "Apple Factory" angle is cheap, lazy, and obvious. And here we are, talking about the damn thing. Effective, too, I guess.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:06 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't appear that we'll ever agree as to whether or not industrialization can occur alongside safe working conditions. I will refuse to agree that a country can't prosper without exposing its workers to, say, n-hexane poisoning.

It isn't an issue over what can be. It's an issue over what is.


Except when that "rising prosperity" is systematically dependent on the workers not having power to point out and address grievances. As soon as these workers reach the point where they might want to do that, they'll simply be replaced by more eager workers who aren't as "spoiled."

This has costs to employers that also empowers workers. It's mentioned in the show. Foxcomm has very high turnover rates, which hurts the bottom line. Whether they're leaving because working conditions are bad or because they're rabble rousers, high turnover rates becomes something that has to be addressed by the employer.

But let's go back on that line. If the workers are experiencing higher prosperity while simultaneously having less power to point out grievances, it's not clear where there is a problem that needs much fixing here.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:13 AM on January 11, 2012


I wouldn't know because I'm not going to listen to it

Most people who comment without RTFA at least try not to trumpet it proudly.
posted by kmz at 8:20 AM on January 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am being driven to kill myself by this thread.
posted by spitbull at 8:20 AM on January 11, 2012


not really
posted by spitbull at 8:20 AM on January 11, 2012


You want me to drive?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:23 AM on January 11, 2012


Trickle down economics really work!
posted by narcoleptic at 8:24 AM on January 11, 2012


Most people who comment without RTFA at least try not to trumpet it proudly.

I don't need to listen to the LTFP to criticize the title.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:25 AM on January 11, 2012


On the other hand, why don't you? You've already invested part of your day.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:29 AM on January 11, 2012


I'm allergic to precious and facile observations laid over a DJ Shadow track.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:31 AM on January 11, 2012


But let's go back on that line. If the workers are experiencing higher prosperity while simultaneously having less power to point out grievances, it's not clear where there is a problem that needs much fixing here.

The point is, these businesses practices aren't a way of improving conditions for workers: they're a mechanism for taking power away from workers who already do enjoy some of that kind of power, and for ensuring that newer workers won't have that kind of power for themselves in the future (because the threat of outsourcing can just as quickly be turned on them, as some call center workers in India are now discovering). Even if some, isolated individuals do experience relative increases in prosperity in the short term through these practices, those same individuals are at the same time trading away any leverage they might have kept to bargain for better conditions for themselves or others in the process. And those gains only last until it becomes cheaper to have the work done somewhere else.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:41 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm allergic to precious and facile observations laid over a DJ Shadow track.


I'm not being obtuse.... it's a medical... it's an allergy, if you must know. To precious and facile observations laid over a DJ Shadow track. Of which there are many, you're right. I did make it very clear. I remember you wrote it down on a little post-it note and stuck it on your... well, I imagine someone did tidy it away, but that's not the point.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:47 AM on January 11, 2012


I skipped over most of this thread to bypass the tech factionalism. Has anybody yet pointed out how fucked up the defenses of sweatshop labor in Act 2 are?

Or were we all too busy defending Apple's honor from heresy?
posted by Misunderestimated at 8:50 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Apple is held out as a company that's not a soulless corporate entity run by ruthless business people who wouldn't sell your grandmother into slavery just to meet the next quarter's revenue.

Yes - ask the people who made money from the Apple Clone market, Newton platform developers, Apple /// programmers or even the CEO of Apple who said "We are committed to maximising shareholder value" exactly how Apple has shown concern for their needs?

(I like how the Newton was Steve'd in Feb and at the March Educators tradeshow Apple reps were telling people how the Newton was an important part of the Apple product line.)
posted by rough ashlar at 8:55 AM on January 11, 2012


The most troubling, unsettling thing, to me, is around minute 53:20, where Paul Krugman (via quotation) and Nicholas Kristof (in person) voice the opinion that sweatshops make everybody better off in the end. That makes me uncomfortable.

Why does this make you uncomfortable? Is it because you realize that you've done more to help Chinese factory workers than you've done to help Chinese farm laborers, even though farm laborers are worse off than the factory workers?

What is a better way to help poor people in other countries: boycotting Apple and demanding better working conditions for Chinese factory workers, or boycotting U.S. food and demanding an end to U.S. farm subsidies and food tariffs? You've never done the math? Perhaps helping people worse off than you is not your primary concern.

Mike Daisy and people like him are moral leeches. There are massive forces working to improve working conditions for Chinese workers, driven almost entirely by the choices made by Chinese factory owners, choices made by Chinese factory workers, choices made by consumers around the world, and even a little bit by Apple when they demand that factories adhere to certain standards. Mike Daisy has almost no interest in these choices. All he's interested in is finding something that he can point out that Apple isn't already doing, even if that means he has to ignore 95% of the improvements that Apple successfully asks for and the 99.99999% of improvements that come as a result of the choices made by faceless people that aren't Apple or Mike Daisy. Choices that are a lot harder and more consequential for the lives of the people making them than the choices he's making.

I will refuse to agree that a country can't prosper without exposing its workers to, say, n-hexane poisoning.

Do you drive to work? Should I boycott every company that doesn't do R&D on, say, teleportation technology that would reduce your risk of getting injured or dying while contributing to global warming on your commute? Do I get moral superiority points for that, or am I asking for too much? Am I the one who's in the best position to know? Do I even have anything at stake here? What is actually at stake for me in this discussion? Is it anything more than whether or not someone who reads this comment will like what I say or think I'm a good person? Is that more valuable than someone else's attempt to make a cool device? What about someone else's attempt to make a living?

This is not to say that there's no place for third parties here, but do you know what the actual benefits and risks of n-hexane are? Did you know that Apple asked the factory to stop using n-hexane and they stopped? Are these things important to you? Ask yourself what you're really trying to accomplish.

even if they do lead to some individual's circumstances improving relative to their previous circumstances, they aren't in any worker's best long term interests.

I'm sure Chinese workers would love it if you could decide what is and is not in their best long term interest. Especially when you admit that you don't think improving their circumstances is one of those things. What do you want? Something that you personally can take credit for, regardless of what it costs someone else?

gains only last until it becomes cheaper to have the work done somewhere else.

It sounds like you are assuming that the worker should be trying to improve their job for the next guy who will have it, instead of improving their personal situation by getting a better job when they have a chance to do so. If you voluntarily leave the factory after one month or two, which IIRC almost all Foxconn workers do according to the TAL show, then I submit that workers have more bargaining power than the factory. That would lead to improving conditions for workers as factory owners compete for them. Which is what is actually happening. Not because workers are sacrificing their own interests in favor of solidarity, which is what you apparently want to see, but because they are pursuing their own interest, just like the factory owners are pursuing their own interests by raising working conditions and/or outsourcing. Be glad you can't actually meddle as easily as you can post, because if you could you would make things worse.

Has anybody yet pointed out how fucked up the defenses of sweatshop labor in Act 2 are?

Yes they have; thanks for demonstrating just how little you're willing to pay for moral superiority. Unless you're trolling, in which case good show sir.
posted by the atomic kung fu panda bandit inquisition at 8:58 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


...is genuine curiosity acceptable as a third possible motivation?
posted by Misunderestimated at 9:02 AM on January 11, 2012


I can't stand Mike Daisey. Everything I've seen that he's done, he comes across as a whiner.
posted by mrbill at 9:02 AM on January 11, 2012


Trickle down economics really work!

Well, something is working in China. The percentage of Chinese citizens living on less than $2/day has steadily fallen over the last 30 years from 98% in 1981 to 36% in 2005. If you look at the graph, you'll see that the velocity of this improvement doubled from the 1980s to the 1990s. This decrease in poverty coincides with an almost 10-fold increase in the number of internet subscribers per 100 between 2000-2005.

I think that it's tough to justify the position that these factories are an unmitigated source of evil (as it would be tough to justify the position that they're an unmitigated force for good). What we're left with, then, is a universal desire (at least among this site's readership) to see that the economic benefits are more fairly distributed, and that the factories are at least partially committed to helping improve the lives of their workers (e.g. maquiladoras in Mexico offering English classes). To some extent the above will be a natural product of the Chinese tech industry's effort to decrease turnover. Indeed, that may end up beign the driving force for workplace reform in an environment where union membership can get you jailed.

That said, these sort of exposés can help serve as a sort of quickening agent. By raising public awareness, they increase pressure on the companies (Apple, HP, Amazon, whatever), increasing pressure on the manufacturers by proxy. At Apple, it seems to come in the form of their annual reports and code of conduct, and y'all can discuss amongst yourselves as to whether or not they're genuine or just paying lip-service. Yet another route is through NGO watchdog groups (e.g. Rugmark, Fairtrade Intl., and other certification marks). So, like, just make informed decisions, bro.
posted by The White Hat at 9:11 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's instructive to see people here get so truly bitter over Apple vs. Non-Apple. It just reminds me not to take these folks too seriously when they rant about more serious matters.
posted by Edgewise at 9:15 AM on January 11, 2012


. It just reminds me not to take these folks too seriously when they rant about more serious matters.

CHILD ABUSE IS WRONG!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sure Chinese workers would love it if you could decide what is and is not in their best long term interest.

Nice!

It's not a matter of me telling anybody anything. The math is what counts. Workers, on average, end up worse off over time under these schemes. How can they not? The only way they even make economic sense for the companies is if, ultimately, their labor costs shrink, consistently over time.

It sounds like you are assuming that the worker should be trying to improve their job for the next guy who will have it, instead of improving their personal situation by getting a better job when they have a chance to do so.

No, I'm only assuming that its not in any worker's best interest to be kept permanently economically dependent on more socio-economically powerful parties who want to exploit them in return for the mere right to subsist. Practices that improve particular workers' short term circumstances only by actively undermining their long-term interests (by leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation in the future and leaving them with no appreciable long-term improvement in circumstances), aren't in my estimation really all that good for workers.

Intangible quality of life factors, such as personal socioeconomic empowerment and personal dignity, are not well measured by current economic metrics. Do the economic metrics take into account the practical quality of life costs of having to stay indoors with air filtering systems when the air in many Chinese industrial centers becomes too poisonous to breathe every few days?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:23 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm genuinely confused about why people are referring to the sweatshop issue as "complicated": What's complicated about virtual slavery?

Yes, great, sure, there might have been some economic benefit to the system, and things might be getting better. But is it possible that we could have achieved the same result without treating the people supposedly being benefited like chattel?

In this case, "relatively better" is still way, way, waaay below any absolute measure of fairness, decency, or basic human dignity. These people have shitty, miserable lives because we're comfortable exploiting them; it doesn't matter if they're gradually getting less shitty and miserable, because they're still shitty and miserable, and it's because of us. That seems pretty clear-cut.
posted by Misunderestimated at 9:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Didn't we do this 10 years ago with regard to Nike? Interesting, that.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:24 AM on January 11, 2012


Yes, great, sure, there might have been some economic benefit to the system, and things might be getting better. But is it possible that we could have achieved the same result without treating the people supposedly being benefited like chattel?

Exactly! Even pure slavery systems are not without some economic benefits, and in fact, almost all the same kinds of arguments were made to preserve slavery in the south ("Hey--most masters treat their slaves pretty well, and they had nothing at all before they became slaves." etc.)

No on ever claimed human rights and human dignity would necessarily be the most economically efficient alternatives.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:27 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


That seems like a disingenuous conclusion to me. People are quite obviously being driven to kill themselves by Foxconn, they're just being driven to do it at a slightly lower rate than they'd be driven to kill themselves by life outside of Foxconn.

The fallacy in that statement is "by Foxconn". People kill themselves for all sorts of reasons. There's no evidence that Foxconn is the cause. It could be a failed love life, depression, etc. All those happen both in and out of the company.

Note that the causality isn't shown in either direction. The demographics for the average Foxconn employee might be lower than the national average anyway. My point was that the suicides themselves were not sufficient indicators that Foxconn was particularly evil.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2012


Mike Daisy and people like him are moral leeches. There are massive forces working to improve working conditions for Chinese workers,

This literally made my jaw drop. It's moments like this that make me wish mefi had a killfile.

Look, the way that the 'massive forces' worked to create our current lifestyle is by finding someone who we could point at and say 'you had it worse before, so make my ipad, slave.' And if it gets better overall for the Chinese worker, it will be at the cost of some other population. Do you think it's even possible to have a conversation about regulated labor?

Whatever, I guess as long as you can sleep at night.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:29 AM on January 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


Your clothes are made by slaves, your shoes are made by slaves, your food is grown by slaves, your computer, your phone, and pretty much anything you'll find in your house is made in these conditions, but it's the system we all collectively asked for, with our obsessive bargain-hunting mentality.

You keep saying this as thought knowing the details of that slavery and being aware of what it means in a literal sense is somehow useless or irrelevant.
posted by liketitanic at 9:29 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In this case, "relatively better" is still way, way, waaay below any absolute measure of fairness, decency, or basic human dignity.

Bet you can't actually create an "absolute measure" without falling back on some pretty ethnocentric notions of what is and is not ethical.
posted by The White Hat at 9:30 AM on January 11, 2012


Bet you can't actually create an "absolute measure" without falling back on some pretty ethnocentric notions of what is and is not ethical.

That kind of comes off like you're claiming that slavery can be defined as a valuable cultural practice. I'm not sure that's what you mean.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:32 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Ethnocentric?" What the blue fuck are you talking about?

Seriously, what does that even mean.

These people have practically nothing: They are literally cogs in a machine, and treated accordingly. Even if only the least sensational part of this expose is true, these people still live in nightmarish conditions. And even if "this is what they want," that's the result of severely diminished expectations. If somebody went into one of these factories and instituted 40-hour work weeks with mandatory paid overtime at a living wage, I doubt very much that any one of these people would be devastated by a loss of cultural autonomy.
posted by Misunderestimated at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Unless you're trolling, in which case good show sir.
posted by the atomic kung fu panda bandit inquisition


That's rich, coming from a sock puppet.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2012


Why was it necessary to bring a die-hard loyal Apple fan--"self-described worshipper in the Cult of Mac"--to the Foxconn factory, instead of, say a long-standing critic of Apple?

Nobody brought him there. He travelled there himself in order to have a better connection with 'all his most important possessions' a few years ago, and to write a play about himself travelling there, which was a hit and got him pretty well known. I saw the play and have not bothered to listen to the podcast, which I assume is basically a rehashing of the same info.
Why didn't a non-self described worshipper in the cult of Mac motivate themselves to do the same thing? Same reason BP is going nuts, the stronger personal identification people tend to have with Apple products.
posted by jacalata at 9:46 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Your clothes are made by slaves, your shoes are made by slaves, your food is grown by slaves, your computer, your phone, and pretty much anything you'll find in your house is made in these conditions, but it's the system we all collectively asked for, with our obsessive bargain-hunting mentality.

You keep saying this as thought knowing the details of that slavery and being aware of what it means in a literal sense is somehow useless or irrelevant.


I don't say that at all. Perhaps you stopped reading there, before I asked the non-rhetorical question, "what's the alternative?" It's kneejerk to accord a claim of defense to something I don't defend, and I asked a perfectly reasonable question. How do we stop the system we've created? How does a person avoid wage slavery, child labor, and shitty working conditions when all that's out there is produced in that manner? That's not a "sigh, I give up" response—it's a "hey, we're a collection of intelligent people thinking about this—now what do we do?"

It's exhausting, trying to have these conversations when every single fucking word you say and every question gets parsed as something it isn't.

Read what I wrote and tell me where I defend slavery. I just said we're all in this sinking boat together and asked questions.
posted by sonascope at 9:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whatever, I guess as long as you can sleep at night.

It's incredibly obnoxious, self-satisfied statements like this that make me wish Metafilter had a killfile.
posted by spaltavian at 9:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's exhausting, trying to have these conversations when every single fucking word you say and every question gets parsed as something it isn't.


Then what are you doing on Metafilter, for Christ's sake?

I just said we're all in this sinking boat together and asked questions.

Well, no. First you point out that you wisely purchased products that were not made by slaves long before anyone was hip to it or to the value of Macs. Then you say that using Apple as a metonym isn't productive or useful.

I don't think you defend slavery. But I do think you keep saying it as though everyone already knows the details and that airing them in this way isn't particularly useful or part of the solution you ask for, but that instead "It's about Mike Daisey's shocking religious awakening (referenced very directly, as it happens) that the silly fixation he had with things might have been a silly fixation after all." You're no better at seeing the forest for the trees than anyone else here.
posted by liketitanic at 9:52 AM on January 11, 2012


Wonderful performance. For a second I thought I was listening to Spalding Gray.
posted by acheekymonkey at 9:53 AM on January 11, 2012


(sorry for tiny derail, but how long does it usually take them to get transcripts up? there is no possible way I can sit through 39+ minutes of talkies without descending into toddler fists of rage.)
posted by elizardbits at 9:53 AM on January 11, 2012


it still amazes me how a team that places such high value on their writing can time and again choose the same, stale music. no effort at all seems to go into finding a new score. that's beginning to kill the show for me.
posted by krautland at 9:54 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's exhausting, trying to have these conversations when every single fucking word you say and every question gets parsed as something it isn't.

It is really the worst and most shameful aspect of this site, the way people will turn your words into something you never said.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:00 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


I saw this last night: 300 Foxconn workers threatening suicide...
Around 300 workers at a Foxconn plant climbed on to the roof and threatened to commit suicide over pay-cuts, conditions, and lack of compensation. Is enough being done for the workers?

When 300 men and women climb onto a rooftop and threaten to commit suicide in protest over denied compensation, it is impossible not to wonder how a company could lead its employees into such desperation.

But Foxconn did.

A little over a week ago, 300 employees at Foxconn’s Technology Park in Wuhan, China threatened their own lives because they were denied a vital pay increase. Foxconn told them they could either keep their jobs without it, or they could quit and be compensated.

Many chose to quit, but the company terminated the agreement, and none of the former workers received the promised compensation.

Production at the company was temporarily halted. It was not until 9 pm the next day that the town’s mayor was able to talk the 300 down from the roof.
China is going to explode one of these days.
posted by symbioid at 10:03 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


(sorry for tiny derail, but how long does it usually take them to get transcripts up? there is no possible way I can sit through 39+ minutes of talkies without descending into toddler fists of rage.)

It's This American Life, I don't think they do transcripts. You either listen to the hour or miss it.
posted by smackfu at 10:04 AM on January 11, 2012


If you're having trouble understanding how little trouble the 0.1% titans of the universe have sleeping at night, all you have to do is find and replace their lifestyle and the vast majority of all our lives/labor with our tech gadgets and the Chinese workers that make them.

Reading this thread, it's clear to me that in general, no one gives a fuck, as long as they get theirs. The only difference is how big you want yours ($1000 iPad? Or multi-million dollar bonus?) to be.

Yeah, I'm saying a bunch of you are no different than those hated i-bankers. Except the i-bankers are both playing the game better and less intellectually dishonest with themselves.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:06 AM on January 11, 2012


> "what's the alternative?"

But can you really mean this question honestly?

The alternative is to give the workers tolerable living conditions. Why is this not the obvious and only answer?

The "race to the bottom" issue means that it's difficult or impossible for me as a consumer to avoid purchasing items that were made with slave labor. I try to be careful but in many, in most cases I simply have no idea how the item I'm purchasing was made, and who made it; or there is simply no alternative.

This is why we have laws. This is why we have government - to prevent game-theoretical dead ends like the race to the bottom, problems that the free market cannot possibly solve.

Right now, it's perfectly legal in the US to buy an item that's made by slave labor in a polluting factory that is leaving its immediate area toxic for generations to come. As long as this continues to be legal, this problem cannot possibly be solved.

And when will the US government fix this? The answer is, "Not until the current system collapses." It's quite literally impossible for any contemporary politician who wishes to have a future within the system to even mention the idea that we should pay our foreign slaves a living wage.

I read an article about Kurt Vonnegut where he talked about his family's tendency to suicide - he pointed out that if you have that tendency, the idea drifts through your mind as a general purpose solution to every question. "Flat tire on the freeway? Suicide would fix that!"

We have a host of critical issues these days: the eternal US foreign wars, climate change, structural unemployment, the War on Terrorism, the War on Drugs, slave labor, the destruction of the environment. Look into any of these issues, and you are struck by the fact that "you can't get there from here" - any positive change toward a solution is not just difficult, but structurally impossible.

I'm a cheerful person who's personally been successful and not wanted for much, but in the last few years I have to say that I no longer believe we will fix our sea of troubles without a collapse, or at least some sort of dramatic discontinuity between "our broken system that sinks deeper and deeper" and "a better system that allows forward progress again".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:08 AM on January 11, 2012 [14 favorites]


But is it possible that we could have achieved the same result without treating the people supposedly being benefited like chattel?

Reminds me of Mao apologism that I've seen that says essentially, "OK, sure, it's bad that he killed tens of millions of people, but look at how prosperous China is now!" I wonder if they would applaud an ambulance driver that indiscriminately ran over people on the way to the hospital.

Bet you can't actually create an "absolute measure" without falling back on some pretty ethnocentric notions of what is and is not ethical.

JFC, we're not talking about lofty abstract ideas like "freedom of speech" or "freedom of religion" here. We're talking about "freedom of having working limbs" and "freedom from being exposed to toxic chemicals".
posted by kmz at 10:08 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


There will be a Portlandia sketch where Apple loving hipsters discuss guilt over the conditions of the workers who made there iphones but then they realize there is an app that let's them make a small donation to a workers rights organization every time they tweet what they are having for lunch, so it's all ok.
posted by chrismc at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


You're no better at seeing the forest for the trees than anyone else here.

That's because I'm not the smartest kid in the room and never claimed to be. I'm not here to be a wise sage—I'm just here to share my observations and questions, and I have done so.

I also don't say I "wisely" purchased products before anyone was hip to the value of Macs. I just said I did buy those products, and I did so because I liked them, I liked the way they worked, and in the time when I bought them, there wasn't anything that did what they did. You can dissect and parse and project all you want, but what you're saying is not what I'm saying. I'm asking what the alternative is, and I'm describing why I think there could be an alternative. It wasn't always this way. That implies that there are other possibilities.
posted by sonascope at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2012



Why was it necessary to bring a die-hard loyal Apple fan--"self-described worshipper in the Cult of Mac"--to the Foxconn factory, instead of, say a long-standing critic of Apple?


Joel Johnson - who is a gadget journalist, basically, so presumably has or at least aspires to some form of objectivity in re: fandom - took a tour of the Shenzhen facility. The page on Wired.com seems to be down, but there's a mirror here.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:12 AM on January 11, 2012


> "what's the alternative?"

But can you really mean this question honestly?

The alternative is to give the workers tolerable living conditions. Why is this not the obvious and only answer?


That's not an alternative—it's magical realism. Tell us how to make that happen. Royal decree? One company acting completely alone for the five minutes they'd survive before they'd crash? What's the method by which we, as consumers, can stop transnational juggernauts enabled by corrupt governments? What if we could wave a wand and produce the change you think is so easy overnight? What happens when the entire electronics industry starts selling products for twice the price, or ten times the price? What happens when the fucked-up bargain bin consumer culture crashes?

I suppose there's always World Made By Hand, but that's just a think piece. Reality is a complicated place, and none of us have yet discovered a wish genie in a bottle.

What's a realistic first step to solving this problem?
posted by sonascope at 10:17 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


sonascope: could you go back, please, and read past the first sentence in my answer? Thanks!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:20 AM on January 11, 2012


Holy shit. Where to start?

1. This wasn't an "Apple" story. At all.

2. The "raising the Chinese standard of living" argument is horseshit. They happen to be the main beneficiaries right now. But it won't last. Business is already shifting wholesale to places like Vietnam. It's not like we haven't witnessed this before - where are all the Mexican macquilladoras now? Gone. Because Mexican workers became "too expensive". Hah. Fool me once...

3. Sure, we get lower prices in this scheme - but it's self-defeating. If these products were made here they would be more expensive. But we would have more employed people with wages to offset that.

4. This is where the 1% comes from. Duh.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


That kind of comes off like you're claiming that slavery can be defined as a valuable cultural practice. I'm not sure that's what you mean.

"Ethnocentric?" What the blue fuck are you talking about?

I'm not arguing that "this is what they want." I'm not arguing for slavery. I'm certainly not arguing for Apple, or for any other tech company. I'm arguing that the "severely diminished expectations" of which you speak so dismissively may actually be the dominant mode of thinking in the country to which you have likely never traveled. Maybe it's not. Maybe different folks believe different things. Maybe individuals themselves hold conflicting opinions regarding the value of Foxconn & other large tech plants in China. Maybe you oughtn't put words in anybody's mouth.

My point here is that arguing from an inflexible moral universalist perspective is going to severely limit your ability to carve out a pragmatic solution to the very real problem of the decreasing agency among Chinese factory workers. Seriously. Look a couple posts above this one and you'll find people trumpeting the "collapse" of the current system as inevitable, desirable, and the only way to bring about a system that protects workers' rights. It requires a very special sort of undergraduate to really believe that the current system's collapse will be beneficial to anybody.

There's a place for consumer activism, but it's ignorant hubris to think that you're going to stop much of anything with *only* consumer activism. I've already outlined several forces that are improving the situation completely independent of your (or anyone else's) social mores.

You may consider this my last contribution to the thread-- I've got about fifty anticonvulsants to learn. Direct further questions of clarification to MeMail or to the abyss.
posted by The White Hat at 10:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


We either need effective international labor regulations across the board provide minimal labor and environmental standards or we need unions to be universal enough, powerful enough and effective enough to achieve the same practical effect. That's the opposite direction from where we've been headed due directly to the aggressive lobbying practices of industrial concerns.

There's a place for consumer activism, but it's ignorant hubris to think that you're going to stop much of anything with *only* consumer activism.

Again, make a single argument for exploitative factory labor that can't legitimately be made for pure slavery systems and you might convince me we aren't just trying to justify an immoral system with subtle accounting tricks.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:29 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


> It requires a very special sort of undergraduate to really believe that the current system's collapse will be beneficial to anybody.

Thanks for the personal insult! I'll bet I'm much older than you, though.

I don't think the current system's collapse will benefit anyone - actually, I think huge numbers of people will die. However, I simply don't see any practical way to change the direction we're headed at this point. I welcome any alternative, no matter how far-fetched - I haven't seen anyone propose any solutions on this page, at least.

Do you really think people will just stop buying consumer products to protest what's going on? Or that the largest governments of the Western world will pass laws prohibiting purchases of products made by slave labor? Or that the Chinese government is going to suddenly empower hundreds of millions of their workers?

There are massive structural problems in the system; and the system appears to be set up so that these problems cannot be solved. Again, I welcome people's constructive suggestions.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:31 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Serious Question:
Can someone point me to brands of high-quality eletronics hardware in the smartphone, tablet and computer categories that are made exclusively in North America or Europe? Money is no object.

The conditions at Foxconn are horrible. I would love to stop supporting businesses that perpetuate them.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:31 AM on January 11, 2012


CAUTION - RANT FOLLOWS:

The way I see it we all buy shit made in slave-labor camp conditions all the time. Amazon has terrible warehouses where the temperature in the building can go over 100 degrees; Wal-Mart destroys small town businesses; Foxconn has horrid work conditions, etc etc etc. The fact is that other than rail about how bad this is we don't do anything about it and we keep shopping a Amazon, Wal-Mart, Apple, etc. Why? Because we like cheap shit. And deep down we don't give a rat's fuck about those guys we never meet: the illegal migrants, the dollar-a-day chinese workers, and the child labourers at the textile factories in East Asia.

Oh sure, we all pay lip service to the humane treatment of others, but not one of us sincerely believes anything will ever change and our actions reflect that. We just go on our daily lives believing that somehow we are above that, it's the fault of others. After all I don't shop at Wal-Mart so that makes me a saint, it's all your fault for not following my lofty ideals. Fuck that shit. You want a cheap iPhone? Well great! That means someone, somewhere is getting fucked over so that your iPhone is affordable and your Apple stock keeps paying nice dividends. Our entire society and economy is founded on the fact that someone, somewhere is getting a raw deal; we like to pretend this isn't the case, but in truth this is the case.

So, why do you care about the conditions at the Apple/Foxconn factory? Do you work there? If conditions do not improve, will you throw away your iPhone? I didn't think so.
posted by Vindaloo at 10:35 AM on January 11, 2012


> We either need effective international labor regulations across the board provide minimal labor and environmental standards

"destroying jobs".

> or we need unions to be universal enough, powerful enough and effective enough to achieve the same practical effect.

"socialism".

Not that I disagree with you - I think your analysis is completely correct. The trouble is that we're moving in entirely the wrong direction; our attempt to get an effective government in the US resulted merely in slowing the run to the precipice down to a trot.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:35 AM on January 11, 2012


As an interesting aside, the Raspberry Pi folks (who are working on a $35 ARM-based credit-card sized PC for educational use) just posted an article on why they couldn't manufacture their boards in the UK and ended up going with Taiwan and China.
posted by jeffkramer at 10:35 AM on January 11, 2012


> Our entire society and economy is founded on the fact that someone, somewhere is getting a raw deal; we like to pretend this isn't the case, but in truth this is the case.

If a disproportionate amount of the gains our society has realized in the last 20 years hadn't gone to a tiny portion of the population that's already super-rich, then we could have afforded to improve everyone's working conditions across the board.

The problem is simple enough - a tiny number of people grab the cake and the rest of us are left to compete for the crumbs. Since these tiny number of people have reorganized the system so that change away from this state is impossible, I now believe that non-disruptive change back to a more equitable system is impossible.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:38 AM on January 11, 2012


What's a realistic first step to solving this problem?

Fewer and more expensive electronics, giving technical fetishism the kiss off that it so richly deserves and admitting that it's possible to behave more ethically without magic coming into play.

I'm sure, the salt wards are doing something to keep me from feasting on the blood of the innocent, but mostly it's because I'm not some kind of sociopath.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:39 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why? Because we like cheap shit. And deep down we don't give a rat's fuck about those guys we never meet: the illegal migrants, the dollar-a-day chinese workers, and the child labourers at the textile factories in East Asia.

Why? Because the labor market is not a consumer market. Producers--not consumers--have the biggest influence over decisions about hiring and firing. No amount of consumer activism is going to change the fact that the decisions have already been made before the products ever come to market and that it's in the interests of all producers to engage in the same exploitative sourcing practices regardless of what's in consumer's interests.

This blame the consumer card gets played a lot, but its the producer's who push for fungibility in the labor markets, not the consumers or workers. This is just one of those confounding lies meant to spread the mud around so much and in so many directions no one can tell whose hands are dirtiest anymore.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:40 AM on January 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Oh, also CNN's covering the FoxConn masssuicide protest now (their take is that Foxconn is Microsoft's factory rather than Apples').
posted by saulgoodman at 10:42 AM on January 11, 2012


It's interesting to me that the US has so much contempt for labor that it forces its own labor market to compete against countries where there are few (if any) labor rights. In a sane world, there would be a labor standards tariff, and imports would be taxed according to how much worse the working conditions are compared the US labor standards. If we wouldn't allow the working conditions here, why are we forcing US workers to compete against near-slave labor?
posted by mullingitover at 10:47 AM on January 11, 2012 [18 favorites]


sonascope: could you go back, please, and read past the first sentence in my answer?

For what it's worth, I suspect a collapse or a revolution is probably necessary, but I don't specifically think it has to be a disaster on a global scale. An Occupy Movement that steps into the buildings they're protesting in front of and takes over the machinery of power is one. Small, isolated collapses that oust the idiots and leave openings for smarter people to step in is one. Unfortunately, our ruling class steps in just enough to stop these collapses, so there has to be another way. Just legally obliterating corporate personhood would be huge, but we have to demand it.

Sadly, the average Joe doesn't even know about corporate personhood, and how that fucked-up legal disaster warps our lives. For me, much of this is about creating a new cultural consensus. If we can make it cool to be resourceful and thrifty again, that's a huge accomplishment toward the goal of basic decency. The latter-day DIY movement is a big step in this direction, and the fact that the internet is the best tool for illuminating people that they can do stuff themselves and fix stuff themselves and live better with less goes a long way in that direction. Right now, we're all hypnotized by the shiny, but shiny doesn't last forever. It's ironic, maybe, that the best tools for changing things are the ones made by the workers we hope to protect, but life is a mess. We have to do the best we can with the tools we have.
posted by sonascope at 10:51 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


> If we wouldn't allow the working conditions here, why are we forcing US workers to compete against near-slave labor?

No need to get fancy - why not assume that it's being done for the obvious reasons, because it reduces labor costs in the US and forces US workers to also work as near-slave labor?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:53 AM on January 11, 2012


This American Life responds to the Microsoft/Foxconn factory suicide threats/protests story:
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/blog/2012/01/mass-suicide-threat-at-foxconn
posted by Bwithh at 10:54 AM on January 11, 2012


1. Give foreign workers shitty jobs.
2. Give American workers NO jobs.
3. Profit.

So, who's winning here again?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:55 AM on January 11, 2012


(their take is that Foxconn is Microsoft's factory rather than Apples')

The protest is at Wuhan in Hubei province in Central China. The suicides were at Shenzhen in Southern China - two different facilities. Although, interestingly, I think the specific desktop production line that many of the suicides belonged to was moved from Shenzhen to Wuhan last year.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:57 AM on January 11, 2012


> For what it's worth, I suspect a collapse or a revolution is probably necessary, but I don't specifically think it has to be a disaster on a global scale.

Agreed! From me, above: "in the last few years I have to say that I no longer believe we will fix our sea of troubles without a collapse, or at least some sort of dramatic discontinuity between "our broken system that sinks deeper and deeper" and "a better system that allows forward progress again"."

> Just legally obliterating corporate personhood would be huge, but we have to demand it.

I also think corporate personhood is a tremendously bad thing, but a lot of the properties of corporate personhood are still desirable - you still want to be able to sue a corporation, to start with. Coming up with some way to invalidate Citizens United would be a good thing, but would that do anything but slow down the rate we dig ourselves into a hole?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:57 AM on January 11, 2012


Yay comparative advantage, where the other country's advantage is... desperate people.

So if the U.S.'s advantage is in knowledge-based stuff that only a portion of the population can do, doesn't that leave us with a Saudi-type situation where whomever is involved with the major industry is wealthy and everyone else is fucked? Didn't we have a FPP a while about how they were handling that in northern Europe and how it related to the butter shortage?
posted by charred husk at 10:59 AM on January 11, 2012


(FYI, I'd rather have a butter shortage than a permanent underclass.)
posted by charred husk at 11:02 AM on January 11, 2012


Why? Because the labor market is not a consumer market. Producers--not consumers--have the biggest influence over decisions about hiring and firing. No amount of consumer activism is going to change the fact that the decisions have already been made before the products ever come to market and that it's in the interests of all producers to engage in the same exploitative sourcing practices regardless of what's in consumer's interests.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:40 AM on January 11


That is a very good point, saulgoodman. However if one major producer decides to go with a less-profitable route than it's competitor, the market will react. By this, I mean investment in the producer will go down because of lack of profits, thus the company will be pressured to abannthe chosen-route. Also, consumers can have a say, look at fair-trade coffee - it has made a difference (small yes, but noticeable).
posted by Vindaloo at 11:06 AM on January 11, 2012


"pressured to abandon the chosen-route" - sorry.
posted by Vindaloo at 11:07 AM on January 11, 2012


Vindaloo: yes, this is the "race to the bottom" game theoretical trap, one that's inherent in this sort of system. The only solution for this is unfortunately some sort of law, regulation or other universal rule.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:09 AM on January 11, 2012


The plight of the workers reminded me of the situation of the slave tomato pickers in Florida from Tomato Land:
"Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I'm not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I'm talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.
posted by john m at 11:14 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


My Mac laptop, three iPads, and five dozen iPods were all made by humanely treated robots fueled with electricity sourced from solar power and ethanol grown in the most bucolic fields in Iowa and farmed by decent, church-going Midwestern men who didn't work on Sundays.
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


China's offshoring as well, incidentally - although there's hell of a lot of shore, so you still end up in China.

There was talk of packing up the Shenzhen factory and moving it in its entirety to Langfang, in order to cut costs. Foxconn trades on huge volumes, but it has low margins, not least because the big computer brands are constantly pressing them to keep assembly costs low so they can be competitive in the marketplace. So, to do anything involving significant expenditure, Foxconn would need to either find efficiencies, accumulate debt or push up its prices.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:16 AM on January 11, 2012


The FPP probably should have mentioned the mass suicide threat the other day, although the people who threatened suicide were making Xbox 360s, not Apple products.
posted by delmoi at 11:23 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


2. The "raising the Chinese standard of living" argument is horseshit. They happen to be the main beneficiaries right now. But it won't last. Business is already shifting wholesale to places like Vietnam. It's not like we haven't witnessed this before - where are all the Mexican macquilladoras now? Gone. Because Mexican workers became "too expensive". Hah. Fool me once...

FWIW, Mexico's done quite well. I've pointed to this article before, but your contention that Mexico is now suffering, and that China will follow the (erroneously believed) path downward is likely based on your own personal economic theory, which may not reflect the way things actually happened.
Per capita gross domestic product and family income have each jumped more than 45 percent since 2000, according to one prominent economist, Roberto Newell. Despite all the depictions of Mexico as “nearly a failed state,” he argued, “the conventional wisdom is wrong.”
Sure, it's possible that Mexico, and China could have done better. It seems likely they will do better as time goes by. But the haggling over morality gets pretty old. One of the more tiresome things that happens here is the tendency to use such news stories as declarations about one's ethical superiority. I sometimes think that's the only reason such threads ever get posted.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:27 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thank you for posting this--I was going to post this myself. Mike Daisey is an INCREDIBLE storyteller. This is the first I've heard of him. I was riveted. His cadence, attention to detail, insights make for a completely mesmerizing and heartbreaking storytelling experience.

His story has made me look at all my devices (mostly Apple products) in a new way. I was going to get the next ipodtouch/ipad when it came out, and I've reconsidered for sure. I don't buy many things in general, but new technology has always been my weak point.

I don't think I can say I am a supporter of human labor practices yet continue my blind quest for the next electronic device in good faith.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:28 AM on January 11, 2012


Also, it's sad how quickly people will suddenly be okay with shitty treatment of other people when it comes to their favorite shiny toy. Suddenly the most "progressive" forums sound like fucking Little Green Footballs when it comes to human rights.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 11:32 AM on January 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


FWIW, Mexico's done quite well. I've pointed to this article before, but your contention that Mexico is now suffering, and that China will follow the (erroneously believed) path downward is likely based on your own personal economic theory, which may not reflect the way things actually happened.

I wasn't contending that Mexico is now suffering. In fact, I agree that they are doing better now.

My point is that a business windfall was dumped in their laps, and then, essentially, taken away just as quickly. If the state is ready to pick up the slack when that happens, then they can certainly use this arrangement as a springboard.

But that's not the goal of sending the business there in the first place. It's a happy coincidence, at best.

This system is actively antagonistic to American wage earners, and a race to the bottom.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:40 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would pay more for a free-range iPhone.

For a precedent of an iconic Californian company that gives consumers the choice, look at Fender. They offer users the choice between US or Mexican production on all their most popular guitars. Many people are willing to pay extra for better worker conditions and a more relaxed production schedule. It benefits the workers and it often results in a better product.
posted by w0mbat at 12:14 PM on January 11, 2012


Whenever there's a MeFi thread about the evils of fast food, one company gets singled out almost exclusively...McDonald's. We know that Burger King and Wendy's and the others are just as guilty, but still we only mention McD's by name.
So Apple gets the same treatment in the Foxconn threads. Certain well-known and tiresome Apple defenders need to stop taking it personally.


We need more McDonalds defenders! Won't someone think of Ronald.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:27 PM on January 11, 2012


Mike Daisey previously.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:27 PM on January 11, 2012


Whoever invented the fucking Zune is definitely Jar Jar.

The Zune was a perfectly decent mp3 player, and the Zune software was heaps better than iTunes was - more intuitive, less of a system hog, prettier to look at. Do not diss the Zune.
posted by mightygodking at 12:28 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's a fundamental shift from computer products being utilities that sit in your house under a desk to fashion items. Apple, in particular, is the vanguard of this. Apple computers are fashionable for hipsters and creative types.

But as fashion items, the way the products are made has to be part of the consideration of how fashionable they are. It's as if all the creative types out there were wearing Nike shoes, back when they were having issues with human rights at their factories. No one cares about, say, New Balance because they're not fashionable (I guess, I don't know anything about what's hot in the shoe industry. All I know is: Airwalks were cool when I was in highschool!)

Anyway, the point is The human rights issues at Foxconn are at odds with Apple's fashionable status with hipsters, creative types, etc. So there needs to be a correction, one way or another.
Apple doesn't hire Foxconn so that its workers can commit suicide. No company that hires Foxconn to make Android phones does so, in order that its workers kill themselves. Not even Google-Motorola.
Google-moto is as much a thing as AT&T-T-mobile was a couple a months ago. It hasn't gone through. The fact that Foxconn's stock went up due to the fact that they, hypothetically, might get some business due to a hypothetical but likely merger that might go through in a few years isn't the same as having 80% of your products made there.
Of course, in the eighties and nineties, when the PC folks would all hurf durf at me over my spending way, way too much money on my stupid little Mac, which won't even run DOS, for Pete's sake, mine was made in a high-tech, humane, domestic factory staffed by reasonably well-paid adults, while everyone's Packard Bell metal boxes the size of freight containers and components for their build-it-yourself-and-maybe-it'll-work homemade no-name PCs were made, you know, elsewhere. You expect everything in the world to be cheap and you get exactly what you ask for, which is slaves, misery, and exploitation.
Seriously, that's what you're going with? "Apple products were made in the 90s, before Steve Jobs came back to the company were made in the U.S?" So that somehow means 15 years ago "you" were better then "us"? That's pretty ridiculous. In the 90s Dell and Gateway 2000 were both U.S manufacturers. And I made most of my computers from components as well. I'm sure Apple got their components from the same places they did.

It's also hilarious because given the Steve Jobs cult because he's the one who stopped doing that in order to 'save' Apple.

In any event, it's totally irrelevant to Apple's current working conditions. And oddly, this gets brought up in iPhone vs. Android, despite the fact that iPhones are not Macs, and Android phones are not even related to PCs.


Anyway, I pointed this out in the last thread about this, but it bears repeating. A lot of people seem to think that you have to pay workers crap in order to get the products as cheaply as they are. But That's not even remotely true for Apple. They have something like 80 billion dollars that they haven't been able to spend. It's something like $200,000 in cash per foxconn employee working on Apple products. Had apple paid more for labor, and old on a tighter margin instead of raising prices there would be no impact on consumer prices, nor US Apple employee salaries, at all

Had Apple paid it's factory workers more, and simply put less money into the bank each year, there would be no impact on prices or quality. Other manufacturers are selling no much tighter margins, and would probably have to raise prices a little to pay workers more, but not very much.

Aaand right on queue, here's someone making the exact argument I'm talking about: what I'm talking about:
The fact is that other than rail about how bad this is we don't do anything about it and we keep shopping a Amazon, Wal-Mart, Apple, etc. Why? Because we like cheap shit.
The problem is that while Apple products may be cheap shit, they charge a lot of money for them. There's a 40% markup, they've accumulated $80 billion in cash, etc. So clearly people are willing to pay more for something if it has some perceived aesthetic value. But how a product is made is part of that intangible value. Just like how people pay more for free range organic beef. It's simply not true that Apple has to use these working conditions in order to make their products at the prices they sell them at.

Anyone claiming otherwise simply hasn't done the math.

---

Anyway, I think there ought to be, at least, a tip system. When you buy electronics or order something on Amazon, you ought to be able to tip the bottom rung workers who built, or packed and shipped, your products. Since their labor costs already make up such a small portion of
Mike Daisy and people like him are moral leeches. There are massive forces working to improve working conditions for Chinese workers, driven almost entirely by the choices made by Chinese factory owners, choices made by Chinese factory workers, choices made by consumers around the world
Lol, does anyone take this crap seriously? Capitalism works by informed choices. Most people probably don't know, and are actively lied too, about the working conditions at Foxconn. So, in order for people to make the correct choices, they have to have correct information. People like Mike Daisy are getting information to people, so, the choices people make can more accurately reflect their moral sentiments.
2. The "raising the Chinese standard of living" argument is horseshit. They happen to be the main beneficiaries right now. But it won't last. Business is already shifting wholesale to places like Vietnam. It's not like we haven't witnessed this before - where are all the Mexican macquilladoras now? Gone. Because Mexican workers became "too expensive". Hah. Fool me once...
Well, too be fair eventually they would, in theory, raise the standard of living everywhere in the world, and have no more cheaper places to go. But keep in mind China only surpassed Germany in terms of exports pretty recently. Germany is still #2. Wages are very high there. The infrastructure and accumulated knowledge means their manufacturing base would be hard to replicate. China is building up the same infrastructure and knowledge base. Even if wages are cheaper in Vietnam or Cambodia, or wherever, it may not mean the products are actually cheaper from factories in those countries if you have problems with logistics, knowledge base of the engineers, or whatever.

The problem is the working conditions. Chinese outsourcing would be good for the world if the Chinese government made sure workers were well treated, but obviously they don't. China is, unlike Germany, currently building infrastructure that support not only mass cheap manufacturing, but also mass exploitation with no democratic counterbalance. Clearly, that's a problem.

My the way, the standard of living in Mexico is far, far higher then China. China is about on par with South Africa. It's still a very poor country overall. (Of course, Mexico is in a state of war with it's drug cartels at the moment…)
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on January 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Whew! I am sure glad we have solved that problem.
posted by Xoebe at 1:15 PM on January 11, 2012


The world's labor supply has doubled in the past 20 years. Productivity is still increasing, and fast. More and more jobs are being deskilled, routinized, or automated, a process that started with the industrial revolution and continues through Foxconn's replacing 3 million workers with robots.

If we have the political will, we can maintain labor scarcity in ways that distribute production fairly, but in a competitive international system this is exceedingly difficult.

We have to ask, who benefits from the current system and what are they doing to maintain it? The common textbook argument for free trade is that everyone benefits, but this is based on full employment assumptions and therefore pretty absurd in the current context. Clearly big corporations benefit, but there's a reasonable argument to be made that they are merely responding to competitive market conditions (ignoring lobbying, etc...). Consumers in wealthy countries benefit, although somewhat less than you might expect. Consumers are also, in our system, producers, so if you relax full employment assumptions the idea that consumers are benefiting becomes suspect. Commenters upthread have made the argument, which as far as I can tell is more or less the guiding wisdom followed by the powers that be, that producers in developing nations are benefiting as well--they wouldn't work there if they weren't, right? Here the problematic assumption is not so much full employment as inherent neoclassical ideas about the value of labor.

Standard economics (as contrasted with e.g. Marx) says that the value of labor is what someone (i.e. the market) will pay for it--no more, no less. Basically, this is because nobody can figure out a better way to determine prices. If nobody pays you to hop on one foot all day, that's a good sign that such action provides no value to anyone else.

But this becomes problematic when new technologies or opening borders create vast "reserves" of labor that has not previously been engaged in productive (in the economic, "one guy with a tractor can do the work of 40 men working by hand", sense) work. Then the value of labor drops to essentially zero, and incomes skyrocket and plummet.

A middle-class, consumer-based capitalist system requires mass purchasing power, which requires fairer distribution (through regulation, labor scarcity, or other means) or redistribution (taxes). China's purchasing power has been growing fast but it is still fairly low, which means they are still reliant on US and European consumption. Wages have to come more into balance with the value of the product, which can't happen when transnational corporations are running the show and can exploit international competition and vast stocks of workers.
posted by ropeladder at 1:34 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The real lesson: Even an entire factory of sweat shop workers threatening suicide en mass isn't enough to get past the skepticism of some MeFites for any suggestion that sweat shop workers might not actually be as grateful as advertised for the improved access to economic opportunity globalization has given them.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:23 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


When you sit on $80 billion dollars in cash, doesn't that suggest that either your products are too expensive (probably not, people buy them) OR that you don't pay your workers enough? I suspect Apple pay their first-world workers adequately. Which suggests that some portion of that $80 billion has been stolen from their factory workers.
posted by maxwelton at 2:35 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would be an interesting experiment:
Macs in a black packaging are regular macs, made by the normal slave labour.
Macs in a white packaging are regular macs, but cost $100 more (or whatever) for exactly the same thing, merely with a guarantee they were made at a Chinese company using western union labour standards.

Would it become A Thing?

My feeling is that the Invisible Hand fails pretty dismally at providing fair conditions (or human rights) for the disadvantaged, but this is still an experiment I'd be interested in.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:44 PM on January 11, 2012


I suspect Apple pay their first-world workers adequately. Which suggests that some portion of that $80 billion has been stolen from their factory workers.

Well, they aren't their factory workers. They have outsourced their production, which is one reason they are such a high-margin business - they control research and design, software and retail, but they have somebody else doing the production.

Apple meets with Foxconn and tells them what they want, and how much they are prepared to pay for it. Foxconn and Apple work out a deal. Apple is motivated to get the best possible deal from Foxconn - that is, the lowest possible price. Foxconn is motivated to get the highest possible price that Apple will pay. Apple's leverage is provided by how much revenue Foxconn gets from the Apple deal - without which they would have to grub around for other production work just to keep their assets in motion, and probably end up shuttering some production lines and doing even less profitable work on others just to make any revenue on them. Foxconn's leverage is provided by the logistical problems Apple would have finding another assembler with the same scale, and the risk that product quality standards would fall, or orders would not be fulfilled, during the transition.

Theoretically, the invisible hand finds the optimum level - the most Apple is prepared to pay, the least Foxconn is prepared to settle for. Unfortunately, because the margins are already so slender, it's going to be very hard for Foxconn to decide to do things which are expensive, which are not mandated by their local employment law, are not demanded by their customers and are not going to increase profitability.
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:53 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Talk about black and white thinking.
posted by jacalata at 2:53 PM on January 11, 2012


These are exactly the reasons that I have only owned 3 cell phones and 3 computers in my life. I find it unconscionable to throw away a perfectly good phone knowing what goes into the 'recycling' of them and the building of new ones.

Do I harbor heaps of guilt over receiving iPhones as gifts when I could have stretched the life of my crappy Motorola further? Absolutely. But the iPhone is still my second favorite toy.

Wait. My 6 year old waterproof rabbit died this morning, so I'm actually in the market for another foreign made electronic gadget. And the iPhone is the defending champion of electronics at the moment. Dammit, why can't there be a funny thread for me to mention my need to go vibrator shopping?
posted by bilabial at 3:22 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


2N2222: If the workers are experiencing higher prosperity while simultaneously having less power to point out grievances, it's not clear where there is a problem that needs much fixing here.

Are you serious?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:03 PM on January 11, 2012


Theoretically, the invisible hand finds the optimum level - the most Apple is prepared to pay, the least Foxconn is prepared to settle for. Unfortunately, because the margins are already so slender, it's going to be very hard for Foxconn to decide to do things which are expensive, which are not mandated by their local employment law, are not demanded by their customers and are not going to increase profitability.

This is a bit disingenuous, though. Apple is a huge, possibly their biggest, customer. Apple could easily say "absolutely no hexene, you must pay your workers a comfortable wage, whatever" and Foxconn would comply. Given the obscene profits being made, Apple could easily have a plant in Oklahoma paying middle-class wages to workers making iPhones and still be making a decent profit.

That the huge stack of cash is dismissed with a shrug and a "what can we do about it" says a lot of Apple as a company.
posted by maxwelton at 4:55 PM on January 11, 2012


On Saturday, my SO wanted to know why it took me almost 50 minutes to drive to a store three minutes away and back. 44 of those minutes were spent in the 7-11 parking lot, where I found myself unable to turn off the radio.
posted by bz at 5:08 PM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have a theory that I have not put to Mike Daisey (who I know), that the reason he chose to focus on Apple products is not so much to do with his own love of the brand, and more to do with the fact that since Apple is the favoured brand of new media types and journalists and creatives and people whose job and mission in life is to communicate and spread messages, by drawing attention to Apple's role in supporting this kind of manufacturing hell, he is planting seeds where they are likely to propagate the furthest.
posted by Hogshead at 5:23 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


That the huge stack of cash is dismissed with a shrug and a "what can we do about it" says a lot of that Apple as is a company.

Profit seekers gonna profit. The only way to get companies to not use virtual slave labour is to legislate against it, and be stringent in enforcing that. Companies that want to access the lucrative US market would then have to play ball and insist that their outsourcers meet reasonable working standards.

To be honest, I'm not sure that this is a realistic or viable solution. I know that it will never happen, because of the level of corporate capture in play. But outsourcing in this manner is nothing short of avoiding the regulations preventing this kind of employee abuse in Western liberal democracies, and it is deeply unethical.

Bill Gates can give away his fortune and promote charities all he likes. It is good and admirable that he does so. But it's blood money. It would be nice if he could earn it ethically, as well as spend it ethically.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:49 PM on January 11, 2012


*Tech CEOs like Bill Gates... Obviously BG is not Apple. My point related to tech companies as a group.

D'oh!

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:55 PM on January 11, 2012


Thank you for posting this, nevercalm.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:57 PM on January 11, 2012


I am a million miles from being a corporate apologist, but what Brandon Blatcher says above is true. The problem is less with Apple or any other big company (although they should and must shoulder responsibility for their practices, but given the world we live in, probably will never be forced to) than it is with China.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:01 PM on January 11, 2012


Well, maxwelton, that's why "theoretically". I don't think the invisible hand works very well a lot of the time.

The Atlantic looks at the rough cost of an iPad manufactured in the US. About $1,100, if you want to maintain the margin.

This number is queried by (the admittedly partial) Simply American, on the grounds that assembly line staff aren't paid $32 an hour, and suggests that it could be sold at $729 if Apple's margin went down to 39%.

These are both thought exercise prices - they assume that part costs will remain the same, and the margin calculations are pretty shaky, as they only compare parts+assembly cost - gross margin is not a hugely useful number here. And there is not consideration of infrastructure costs, and so on....
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:12 PM on January 11, 2012


So $1,100 (or $750 if profit is brought down from usurious levels?) is the true cost of an iPad, and whatever discount people get over that is measured in nets atop the Foxconn factories?

I personally don't have a problem with pricing things I use at their "real" cost, defining "real" as paying everyone involved as if they're a human being. If that means I cannot afford it, so be it. But I don't have a compulsion to have a new phone every six months, and computers and such typically last me five years, despite using them in my work. I can afford an extra $500 every five years to have something made in humane conditions.
posted by maxwelton at 7:16 PM on January 11, 2012


This American Life at it's best. I think I may have permanently traumatized my 9 year old playing it with her in the room though.

Seems pretty clearly indicting of the entire industry and of other, non-Apple corporations as well.
posted by latkes at 7:36 PM on January 11, 2012


So $1,100 (or $750 if profit is brought down from usurious levels?) is the true cost of an iPad, and whatever discount people get over that is measured in nets atop the Foxconn factories?

Not exactly. The $1,100 is what you get if you assume that material costs remain the same, and it takes as long to make, but you pay the people assembling it $32 an hour, not $1. The parts that go into an 32GB iPad with 3G iPad cost about $325. So, add either $10 for making it in China or $280 for making it in the US. And that artificially inflates the price to keep gross margin consistent, because it's 54% of a bigger number - talking about gross profit as a dollar value instead would give you a smaller number.

Then, Simply American argues that the people who work in manufacturing who earn $32/hour are probably more skilled than the people who work in Foxconn factories (Or getting peril pay), so you could pay them less - an average wage for an electronic equipment manufacturer is closer to $13/hour - which brings the labour cost down to $117. Which is more, obviously, but not crazy more. I mean, people pay that much difference to get an iPad rather than a market niche-comparable Android tablet.

Except. Except that I don't think you could do that. You'd have to either ship the raw materials in, or mine them in the US, and miners in the US also cost a lot more than they do in China. I think there would be extra costs all the way through the production chain. So, maybe $1000 would be a more credible number, maybe. The problem being that nobody is incentivised to make that product. And to make it would involve recreating a lost industry - rebuilding the consumer computer manufacturing industry from the ground up in the US with no economies of scale except proximity to the semiconductor industry. One of the reasons Foxconn works is that you can have a factory with 400,000 people working in it in China. That would be trickier in the US. Where would you put it? How would you populate it?

(Another thing is that it's not just money that's the problem with Foxconn - it's that the cost/logistics don't make it possible to open factories and populate them as demand grows - especially when demand may fluctuate. It's a lot easier to cut someone's hours or lay off staff from a factory than to shut down a whole factory, and easier to add hours than to open a new line, or a new factory. The whole system feels broken - and possibly the only way to get around that is to buy products when necessary and donate to workers' rights charities...)
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:14 PM on January 11, 2012


This discussion has gone pear-shaped.

I endorse this message.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:19 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


pretty much every technical thing you own comes from shitty overseas factories

I'm totally digging my new suit, though.
posted by flabdablet at 9:12 PM on January 11, 2012


The real problem with this sort of thing is that even if you moved production of the products to the United States, or whatever first-world country, you still have to deal with the fact that the actual transistors and capacitors and other fiddly little bits are made almost exclusively in China. At least things like solid-state memory are made in places like Singapore…

Granted, it would be a pretty cool thing if we did see, say, Apple putting their vast coffers to work Creating Jobs In America by bringing manufacturing over, but at the same time it still wouldn't allay complaints about coltan and the like.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:09 PM on January 11, 2012


Well, if you moved the whole process over, the logical thing to do would be to use Canadian coltan.

Which would have the side benefit of providing a plot for the long-awaited sequel to Canadian Bacon.
posted by running order squabble fest at 10:23 PM on January 11, 2012


So is Canadian coltan called "side coltan" or "back coltan" up there? I can never keep them straight.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:31 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In Britain, I think it's called Coltammon.
posted by running order squabble fest at 11:18 PM on January 11, 2012


I'd thought that was the board game with dice and chips and crushed spirits
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:02 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I finally listened to this, and I want to send my iPhone back to Apple.
posted by smackfu at 6:16 AM on January 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Unbelievably powerful. I'm typing this on my iPad 2 right now and to think that this piece of gadgetry was built there is just mind boggling. I used to live in Hong Kong and it was basically known that (it's a very tech savvy and hip city, mind you) just slightly north of us was a city that built much of what we owned and the conditions were no secret.
posted by Meathamper at 10:28 AM on January 12, 2012


rosf - I don't necessarily want the iDevices and other electronic claptrap made here, though that would be ideal. What I'd like is for the people making them, wherever they're made, to make a middle-class wage in decent conditions.
posted by maxwelton at 11:39 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, sooner or later robotic factories will be more cost-effective than human labor. Manufacturing robots now are to clumsy to make gadgets, but there's no reason to expect that to be the status quo.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:26 PM on January 12, 2012


More like robots cost more than defacto slaves.
posted by smackfu at 1:14 PM on January 12, 2012


That's what I said! When the robots cost less then most of the workers will be shuttled out the door.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:22 PM on January 12, 2012


The hidden danger of touchscreens
posted by jeffburdges at 9:03 PM on January 12, 2012


The Atlantic looks at the rough cost of an iPad manufactured in the US. About $1,100, if you want to maintain the margin.
Lets say a dongle cost $1 if manufactured in China with horrible wages, and it's sold for $25. in the US. That's a 96% profit margin. If it cost $10 to make it in the U.S. you'd now have to sell it for $250 to maintain the same 'margin'. However, you could sell it for $35 and make the same total amount of money, per unit.

And the point is, Apple's margins are huge. They pay their workers a lot more, without affecting their prices or any other aspect of their business, other then how much wallstreet loves them.
posted by delmoi at 9:42 PM on January 12, 2012


Apple Opens Suppliers’ Doors to Labor Group

Apple Inc. (APPL) agreed to let outside monitors into factories of suppliers such as Foxconn Technology Group (2317) following at least 15 deaths at its Chinese parts makers.

The world’s most valuable technology company joins Nike Inc. (NKE), Nestle SA (NESN) and Syngenta AG (SYNN) in turning to the Fair Labor Association, set up in 1999 to monitor workplace conditions globally in an initiative by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Apple is the first technology business to sign up to the FLA as a participating company, the Washington-based body said today in a press release.


Apple Joins Fair Labor Association

January 13, 2011 - The Fair Labor Association today announced that Apple will join the FLA as a Participating Company, effective immediately. The FLA will independently assess facilities in Apple's supply chain and report detailed findings on the FLA website. Apple becomes the first technology company to join the Association as a Participating Company.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:10 AM on January 13, 2012


What would actually be awesome would be is Apple recognised unions in the Foxconn plants. Can't see the PLA being very happy with that though.
posted by pharm at 11:47 AM on January 13, 2012


You'd think with Apple being such a big customer, they would just have an Apple employee or dozen on each assembly line. Instead of doing random audits and reports that are only as transparent as FoxConn wants to be.
posted by smackfu at 12:03 PM on January 13, 2012


> You'd think with Apple being such a big customer, they would just have an Apple employee or dozen on each assembly line.

I don't know how it all works, but I suspect the Chinese authorities wouldn't grant US companies long term visas to be factory minders.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:06 PM on January 13, 2012


January 13, 2011 - The Fair Labor Association today announced that Apple will join the FLA as a Participating Company, effective immediately. The FLA will independently assess facilities in Apple's supply chain and report detailed findings on the FLA website. Apple becomes the first technology company to join the Association as a Participating Company.


The Fair Labor Association has it's critics, but this is still moderately good news. Given the timing it seems fairly likely that the This American Life story played a role in this decision. Which is a good explanation of why Apple is targeted over and over in these stories. It's not about Apple being worse than anyone else, but only that given it's customer base, Apple is a useful wedge for a movement that has few.
posted by latkes at 12:24 PM on January 13, 2012


Actually that was a year ago. It seems like Apple has just decided to ignore it this go around, or at least just let their FoxConn reports speak for themselves.
posted by smackfu at 1:04 PM on January 13, 2012


Actually that was a year ago

No, that was today. The 2011 date is a typo.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:08 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah. Then I applaud them.
posted by smackfu at 1:24 PM on January 13, 2012


Finally, we are taking a big step today toward greater transparency and independent oversight of our supply chain by joining the Fair Labor Association. The FLA is a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving conditions for workers around the world, and we are the first technology company they've approved for membership. The FLA's auditing team will have direct access to our supply chain and they will report their findings independently on their website.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:03 PM on January 13, 2012


Given the amount of web site they have about this, it seems like delightful coincidence rather than catalyst. Good news nonetheless!
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:44 PM on January 13, 2012


Apple Details Working Conditions at Factories: Apple said its annual inspection of suppliers found they were in compliance with its maximum 60-hour work week only 38% of the time and 108 facilities didn't pay proper overtime. In an interview, CEO Tim Cook said it hopes to improve conditions by 'monitoring these plants at a very, very micro level.'

Apple Navigates China Maze: Apple is pinched between the promise and perils of doing business in China—a challenge highlighted after a fracas outside a Beijing store and as the company detailed working conditions throughout its supply chain.

Behind the scenes with Mike Daisey

also previously

oh and re: robots...
posted by kliuless at 12:00 PM on January 14, 2012


elizardbits: The transcript is now up.
posted by running order squabble fest at 5:46 AM on January 16, 2012


The Daily Show: Fear Factory
posted by homunculus at 4:26 PM on January 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad
posted by homunculus at 1:40 PM on January 26, 2012


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