I’ve been watching the indignation build over the alleged treatment of workers at Apple’s biggest supplier, the unfathomably huge Chinese Foxconn plant, where iPhones and iPads are assembled. The New York Times published two big stories about Foxconn this week (1, 2), setting off the discussion. Today, on an Internet forum for professional photographers that I frequent, a couple of people weighed in with now-familiar condemnations of Apple.
Corporate greed at it’s worse. I type this on my Macbook Pro.
…said one commenter, which prompted another to likewise chide Apple and then come clean:
If Apple wanted, it can end world hunger. If Apple wanted, it can use the $65 billion that it has offshore, bring it back home to America and help the economy. But they are playing by the rules set by the market, and are winning. The losers are all of us still buying everything they dish out, and have no say. I too, typed this out on my iPad. [emphasis mine]
Come again? How on earth do you have “no say”? If the supposedly poor treatment of the Chinese workers means enough to you, you can vote with your wallet and refuse to buy any more Apple products.
Also, shares of Apple have been for sale for the past 32 years to anyone who wants them. So you’re free to become a shareholder and exert influence on Apple’s policies and practices that way, too.
And those rules you decry — the ones that, to your unspeakable horror, are “set by the market”? That market includes you. Don’t pretend that it exists in some vacuum for which you bear no co-responsibility. As surely as you may boycott any company that’s part of that market, you may also picket it, publish pamphlets and websites and editorials against it, and whinge on Internet forums about it. Just be prepared for a little pushback, because not everyone will find your opinions logical or well-informed.
It’s astonishing to me that even a lot of Apple’s harshest critics in this matter, such as Foster Kamer at the New York Observer, get all high and mighty about the topic and then sputter about how they might not buy the next iPhone.
Full-Disclosure: I own an iPhone. Reading the Times‘ piece today — like every other piece about Foxconn out there — gave me further pause about what owning an Apple product (or anything containing any of the products Foxconn manufactures) actually means, and whether or not it’s time to start looking into alternatives.
The articles give him “further pause.” Ah, such heartrending solidarity with the proletariat (though of course the pretty sentiment is, for now, without inconvenient consequences). Mr. Kamer, bless him, considers “whether it’s time to start looking into alternatives” for his beloved iPhone. But not too quickly! Wouldn’t want to give up the favorite lifestyle totem of all self-respecting hipsters and digerati!
What do you want to bet that Mr. Kamer and roughly 98.4% of all “concerned” Apple end users will still be using an iPhone and/or other Apple baubles three or five years from now — all the while maintaining that they’ve totally had it with Apple’s “corporate exploitation”?
No one is keeping anyone from putting their money where their mouth is. Except these people themselves — at least those who talk out of both sides of said organ.
Also, let me add a word about the oft-repeated, angry assertions regarding the ostensibly terrible suicide rate at the main Foxconn plant. In a piece that was actually pretty critical of Foxconn, Wired reported that
Out of a million people, 17 suicides isn’t much — indeed, American college students kill themselves at four times that rate.
But even that is (f)actually incorrect if you consider that those 17 Foxconn suicides occurred over a three-to-four-year period. The suicide rate at U.S. colleges is 7.5 deaths per 100,000 students annually, or 13 times the Foxconn number. And according to the World Health Organization, China’s suicide rate, for the whole population, is 13.9 out of 100,000, or more than 24 times the rate at Foxconn. In other words, when it comes to suicide prevention, working at Foxconn is roughly 24 times safer than working at the average plant or office elsewhere in China.
Then there’s the related poppycock about how immoral it is of Foxconn to install anti-suicide nets around its buildings. The critics who work themselves into a lather over the nets should apply the same outrage to Cornell University, to the people who operate the Golden Gate Bridge, to the folks who run the Eiffel Tower, etc. The nets provably reduce the number of suicides. If you think that’s horrible, you’ve got a mighty odd sense of right and wrong — or maybe just an aversion to saving lives when the methods used to achieve that goal don’t fit your blinkered world view.
And just by the fucking way, when Foxconn opens its gates to jobseekers, this is the scene that results (photo and caption from the New York Times):
Oh, the humanity! Those poor brainwashed people, so deluded that they actually want a job that will enable them to provide for themselves and their families — and perhaps climb the career ladder and grab a piece of China’s growing abundance!
Look, I have no doubt that work conditions at the Foxconn plant are not exactly ideal, and it’s fair game for the Times to report exactly as the paper did. I hope that Apple will listen, and that the company will insist that any violations of its code of conduct be addressed. But the wolves now baying for Apple’s blood appear to lack all perspective. I hate especially that their howls have an undertone of xenophobic sanctimoniousness. I mean, why single out an Asian employer? Working at your average U.S. slaughterhouse, poultry plant, paint factory, or sewage-treatment facility is surely no picnic either. Beyond that, millions of Americans work in low-paying, pretty disagreeable retail and fast-food jobs at WalMart and McDonald’s. And the same is true for all those companies as well: If you don’t like how they treat their workers, then don’t apply for a job there, and don’t give them your hard-earned money.
Anything less is just grandstanding: Meaningless, hypocritical, and annoying.
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.