Apple is Apple because everything associated with it is beautiful, sleek and cool. Except, of course, those manufacturing plants in China where the dormitory-housed, over-worked workers are prone to suicide and rioting.
The New York Times reported in the series “iEconomy: An Empire Built Abroad,” that President Obama, attending a Silicon Valley dinner in February of 2011, asked Steve Jobs, the late Apple founder: What would it take to make iPhones in the United States? “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” Jobs responded.
Apple, and many others, insist they have no choice but to manufacture overseas. With Apple, it’s a philosophy that washes its hands of American factory workers. The New York Times sums up: “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”
This week, 40 of those diligent people were hurt, three seriously, during a brawl between 2,000 workers at the Foxconn factory in China. The company is a major Apple supplier.
The “speed” that Apple touts of its foreign workforce, however, is achieved through 12-hour shifts and forced overtime. The riots and suicides testify that it’s less about “diligence” and “industrial skills” and more about a labor pool that doesn’t have much choice about anything. But that’s changing.
The young migrant workers whose labor has fueled much of China’s economy has begun to change, the Washington Post reported. That labor pool is shrinking, as workers from China’s provinces have become better educated and hold higher expectations.
In other words, they are like everybody else who see the upwardly mobile all around them. They want to own an iPhone, not build them. Because the work is grueling and dangerous, as documented by the New York Times.
Apple felt the pressure, the Post reports, which led to raise wages and other minor reforms.
But it’s more than money. “People would rather work at a hotel or other places. It’s not a lack of workers in these areas, it’s a problem of spiritual emptiness,” said Wang Zhiqian, who recruits workers for Foxconn.
It’s too bad Steve Jobs didn’t use any of his genius to try and modernize manufacturing and factory work, rather than pretending that something magical, beyond the ken of American workers, was happening in China.
In a sensible world, building Apple phones would be a source of pride. (Not suicide.) Factory workers (Chinese and American) would be treated humanely and compensated fairly; they are just as much part of the Apple team as the geeks, after all.
No one can work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and not succumb to “spiritual emptiness.”