Over the last three decades or so American consumers bought household items at ever lower costs. During that time the demand for the lowest costs for consumers and the highest profits for companies pushed manufacturing jobs into Mexico and eventually poor Asian countries.
We enjoyed the cheap products and companies loved the rising stock prices. A dream come true for those who did not rely on factory jobs and had money in the stock market. The epitome of free trade and a win-win for many.
This practice is finally beginning to take its toll, not just on the economy but our morals. In their quest for profit and ours for saving money, we pushed wages and working conditions to the bottom. A few people might make the argument that foreign workers now have the ability to work real jobs, thus pulling them out the “grimness” of rice paddies. That’s the word choice of New York Times Nicholas Kristoff in the “This American Life” episode linked here.
Without Foxconn and other assembly plants, Chinese workers might still be working in rice paddies, making $50 a month instead of $250 a month (Kristof’s estimates. In 2010, Reuters says, Foxconn workers were given a raise to $298 per month, or $10 a day, or less than $1 an hour). With this money, they’re doing considerably better than they once were. Especially women, who had few other alternatives.
Reality tells a much darker story. Earlier this month, workers at China’s Foxconn factory staged a two day protest on top of the building’s roof. This was no ordinary sit-in or refusal to work type protest. The 150 people threatened suicide if working conditions did not improve.
The latest protest began on January 2 after managers decided to move around 600 workers to a new production line, making computer cases for Acer, a Taiwanese computer company.
“We were put to work without any training, and paid piecemeal,” said one of the protesting workers, who asked not to be named. “The assembly line ran very fast and after just one morning we all had blisters and the skin on our hand was black. The factory was also really choked with dust and no one could bear it,” he said.
Foxconn is often contracted a manufacturing facility by major companies like Apple, Sony, and Nintendo. In 2010, eighteen workers tried to kill themselves by jumping from the roof of buildings… 14 succeeded. Foxconn put up safety nets and hired some counselors instead of improving conditions, evidenced by the recent threats.
“The welfare of our employees is our top priority and we are committed to ensuring that all employees are treated fairly,” said a Foxconn spokesman. Um, sure!
Capitalism, left unchecked, pushes wages and conditions to abhorrent levels. It is only through public pressure factories like Foxconn have raised wages or slowly changed conditions in the workplace. Apple and other companies moved manufacturing overseas decades ago to save money and increase profit margins. The company sits with a near $400 billion market share and earning per share of roughly $28. They report their latest quarter results next Tuesday. It could sacrifice a little bit to pay workers fair wages or even move operations back to the United States. But that is too big of a dream at this point.
If you don’t want to listen to the episode of “This American Life” linked above, I will give you some highlights.
Just 31 years ago, Shenzhen was a little village on a river but now is home to nearly 14 million people. The town built into a city because of the shipping of jobs from the American Midwest now live here. Foxconn’s factory in the city employs 430,000 people alone. Mike Daisey interviewed people as they entered and exited the factory. Daisey estimated that roughly five percent of the workers were underage – 12, 13, and 14 years old.
Kids and adults alike work 14-16 hours per day without typical Americanized breaks with stops on Facebook and Twitter. Not even a water-cooler break. They are watched by cameras to ensure the fastest possible speeds on the assembly lines. Outside guards with guns patrol the entrances.
Workers do not return to some nice cushy home at the end of a long day. With such a huge amount of time spent at the factory they live there as well in dormitories. Think of the stereotypical tiny college dorm room. The 12-by-12 room… but filled to the brim with more than a dozen people and beds.
Think about this for a few moments. These working conditions are a result of a race to the bottom without a quality system of checks and balances. Regulators, unions, public knowledge of the conditions, etc. Unions are illegal in China and if caught trying to begin one can get you sent to prison.
Without regulations or unions supporting the workers, they are forced to use toxic chemicals, such as hexane, a neuro-toxin. If a person becomes disabled or sick, they are typically fired. Daisey spoke with a man who once made the metal casing of iPads.
Daisey showed him his iPad. The man had never seen one before. He held it and played with it. He said it was “magic.”
What is left for me to say? Especially as I type this on a MacBook and my iPhone sits next to me. I’m an Apple geek. I enjoy television on a set made in a foreign factory. I feel shame. As I should. The emotion propels me to hate myself and our current economic system. How can the people in charge decide human life is worth less than a phone an American buys for $300 and throws out after their two-year contract runs out.
In a way, this is the method for countries to climb into the 21st century and one day enjoy the products they make. But as Daisey mentioned, it is yet to happen. Will it ever? Possibly, but it probably will not be in this generation. Economists believe it will help countries like China move into a capitalist democracy and move people into a type of middle class. On our end it is forcing us into a purely service economy with below living wages. As already mentioned, Chinese workers make less than a dollar per day.
The hope of the economists is feels unrealistic to me. This type of system is merely allowing executives to gobble up more of the money. It might move some people out of abject poverty but it is into poverty accompanied with abuse that must be endured a dozen hours a day.
We have an obligation to fellow human beings to ensure their health and safety. Yes, I benefit greatly from these products at a cheaper prices and shareholders make money off of better earnings. But I do not benefit by having their spirits punished so severely they want to kill themselves. I know all too well what it feels like to desire an end to your life. No one should feel so horrible so Steve Jobs’ family can earn a few extra pennies a share.
© Aaron Krager 2008-2013 | Have any questions? Send me an email.