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What They Forget About Apple’s Factory Worker Problem

So the headlines loom large and threatening in the U.S.’s newspaper of record, The New York Times. Workers at Apple’s contract factories, particularly those owned by Foxconn Technology of China, are little more than slaves existing in unsafe conditions. They may suffer injuries and possibly commit suicide because the are forced to work hard day in and day out with little rest or relaxation. Indeed, they have to live in dormitories, not apartments or regular homes.

Now America’s image of the factory worker is cemented in the 1950s. People who worked in steel mills and auto plants were relatively comfortable citizens of the middle class. They were able to earn enough money to buy a modest home and, perhaps, even save a little to help send their kids of to college. That way, the next generation could use their minds instead of their hands to earn a paycheck. What’s more, two-income families weren’t always necessary to help cover the mortgage and pay for food. Extra income from a second job would help cover family vacations and luxuries, perhaps even a new car or TV set.

That way of life is long ago and far away. The proverbial 40-hour work week is a forgotten dream in many countries, and it’s far worse for a the citizen of a third-world country. Getting a regular gig at a factory such as the ones run by Foxconn can help develop new skills, and ensure that workers and their families might have enough money to begin to improve their humble standards of living.

Sure, we wouldn’t tolerate such sweat shop working conditions in the industrialized world, but China is moving fast and furious to raise everyone’s standard of living from near-squalor. At the same time companies are taking advantage of cheap labor to save production costs.

Nowadays, these contract factories assemble most of the world’s supply of personal computers, tablets, smartphones, and loads of other products. Yes, every Apple product is designed in Cupertino, CA, but most are assembled in Asia for a whole lot less money. As a result, you pay less too, but it also means that the manufacturing base in many countries with more expensive labor is dying.

However, Apple has a perfect right to assemble their gear wherever they get can the best prices and high production efficiency. But you have to be concerned when you read reports of worker mistreatment, and you wonder about the charges that Apple is turning a blind eye to such abuses.

Well, in response to story in The New York Times detailing this sad state of affairs, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded quickly, claiming the company is very focused on worker safety, and will continue to do what’s necessary to improve the treatment of employees of Foxconn and other factories. In passing, I wonder if Steve Jobs would have responded near as quickly and forthrightly, though he also professed similar concerns.

At the same time, the people who focus on Apple’s production worker situation shouldn’t forget that other companies assemble their gear at Foxconn, including HP. Sure, Apple may be Foxconn’s largest customer, but HP is a healthy number two. And just where do Dell and other companies go when they need to assemble such products as personal computers or printers?

Now I don’t pretend to know the inner details of the worker situation at these plants. Even if they feel they are comfortable and relatively well off, at least compared to their former standard of living, nobody has the right to abuse them or overwork them. If that’s still happening, certainly Apple and other customers of these firms need to continue to properly deal with such abuses. Maybe it would serve the entire consumer electronics industry to set aside their competitive differences and agree not to deal with any factory that mistreats its employees. That will fix the problem but good.

Of course, you wonder why the governments of China and other countries that allowed these factories to be built are tolerating such a tragic situation. Or maybe they are happy that their citizens are putting food on the table and paying taxes. I suppose one could suggest that the right officials in the right departments might be enriched from time to time with money from factory executives to look the other way. That wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, though I am maybe paying too much attention to movies about how officials behave in third-world countries, although payoffs are common all over the world.

You could also suggest that maybe Apple should just call up Foxconn and say, “you’re fired,” but it’s not that easy. Apple has assembled a very sophisticated supply chain, using expensive custom tools with which to fabricate unibodies on MacBooks and the glass externals of iPhones. Switching production facilities under these circumstances wouldn’t be easy, and it would have to be done slowly and deliberately to avoid any production interruptions.

At the same time, I hope that Cook is right that Apple won’t tolerate unsavory working conditions. Everyone who labors long days and nights to build your favorite electronic gadgets deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect and, of course, paid a decent wage.