We’re finally getting over the hoopla of the This American Life retraction of Mike Daisey’s Apple claims, which has led to a new emerging trend that wouldn’t be possible without the false claims Daisey made. I think Daisey did significant damage to raising awareness on labor standards around the world, particularly in China, for political reasons (his weird alibis don’t help him either). But what he said in his monologue and on the radio was basically corroborated by others, so it has the attribute of being fake but accurate. The new trend is to acknowledge the issues with Foxconn, and then move on to say that Chinese workers are clamoring to get in there, want to work more overtime, and correctly view the factory as one of the better ones in the country in terms of humane conditions. James Fallows, who spent a long time living in China, offers a version of this new trend:
For Americans, the conditions in Apple supply-chain factories are vivid and symbolic, because of the amazing human connection they create. Today I open a box containing an elegant new Steve Jobs-inspired, Jony Ive-designed iPad or other icon. A week ago, who knows what hellish conditions were giving birth to this very machine? Dramatic connections like that are important — and the leverage they create, across borders of nation and language and class, can make a difference. Orville Schell has explained how Wal-Mart has become an important force for environmental improvement in China. International firms like Apple can and should become a force for workplace and environmental improvement in China — showing the way, as Wal-Mart is, for domestic Chinese firms. Of course, it’s not just “firms like Apple” that should do this. Especially Apple should, given its prestige and iconography. (Just as “especially Google” had an obligation to stand up to Chinese censorship.) Steve Jobs was renowned for emphasizing “purity” of design. That concept should spread to his supply chain as well.
But Apple is not the main worker-safety problem in China. Nor even Foxconn. Not even close. Internationally owned factories are at the better end of the Chinese spectrum in wages, working conditions, safety, and (usually) environmental policies. Foxconn’s wages are higher, and its accident rate is lower, than for Chinese-based factories as a whole — and Chinese manufacturing overall is much safer than the Chinese mining or metals industries. (Back in 2007, I saw an item in a Chinese paper saying that 32 metal workers had been horrifically boiled to death, when a giant ladle full of molten steel slipped off its hoist and spilled onto them. The episode got almost no international attention.) Pressure on the Apple supply chain is sensible and valuable if it always presented as a lever for raising Chinese safety and environmental standards generally — and as an ever-ascending standard that the rest of them should meet.
I agree with most of this, except for the whitewashing of Wal-Mart, which Andy Kroll shows has backslid on its environmental initiatives, and which purchases from factories in China with a similarly appalling record. But overall, the idea that Apple sits on the more humane end of the spectrum among Chinese factories is certainly plausible. It’s also expected. They make higher-end products!
What I don’t know is why I should care about the labor conditions in other factories as a way to exonerate Apple. The proper reaction to this is what Fallows argues at the end of that excerpt, that labor and environmental standards generally in China – actually around the world – fall well short of what consumers of those products should accept. The focus on Apple has not necessarily detracted from that general critique. Just today we learned about workers dying in factories used by Tommy Hilfiger in Bangladesh. I worked on a campaign with Brave New Films a couple years ago called 16 Deaths Per Day, highlighting the terrible working conditions in many factories here in America. Mac McClelland recently wrote an amazingly good account of her work undercover as an online-shipping warehouse worker. This builds on the amazing work by Allentown’s Morning Call on the same subject, with respect to a giant warehouse for Amazon.com. Incidentally, Amazon may move to robot workers to handle some of that job in the near future.
The larger point is that Apple doesn’t get a break from how its suppliers treat workers in China because other suppliers treat workers in China worse. This is just a dodge. And the recent history shows that the focus on Apple has allowed for much more critical inquiry across the breadth of wage slave work, a welcome development. In essence, this is the source of my intense criticism of Daisey – for no reason at all he ascribed actual events in warehouses in China to things of which he had first-hand knowledge, in a way that gives defenders of this race-to-the-bottom system a convenient out to nullify criticism.