While I listen to baristas at Starbucks complain about various aspects of their job–a chronically late coworker, the lights being too bright early in the morning when the shop opens, the difficulty of scheduling their shifts and days off–I find myself thinking about an article in the New York Times this week about the atrocious working conditions in the Chinese factories that manufacture most of the world’s electronics, including Apple computers, iPhones, and iPads.
I am no Apple fanboy, but even I admire the beauty of their products, for their simplicity and elegance if not for their shininess. Their machines are audacious: complicated devices carefully designed to seem as though they aren’t machines at all. The practically seamless casing suggests that the Macbook Air sprang forth from Steve Jobs’ head, perfectly formed. Obviously numerous engineers were involved in developing products like the iPad, but to hold one in your hands, to examine how it was put together, to feel the heft of it, it might as well have been hewn from stone like humanity’s first attempts at fashioning primitive knives. But how were they actually put together?
People often describe Apple machines as “sleek,” as in “smooth and glossy as if polished” (adj., Merriam-Webster.) But sleek is also a verb that means “to cover up: to gloss over” (Merriam-Webster). And that may be the most accurate description yet, because now many more people are talking about the fact that the factories where Apple products are made–where they’re assembled by human hands, just like our first tools–are abusing workers with long shifts, unsafe conditions, and cramped quarters, to name a few of their human rights violations. Hard to believe that something as beautiful as an iPhone has such ugly origins, isn’t it? That the pure white sheen of the Macbook hides such a dark truth.
Regardless of whether Apple really attempts to address these problems at the factories it contracts to build their devices, rather than just catalog them to save face, they’re complicit in every one of those human rights violation–as are we all. And it isn’t just Apple, it’s practically every electronic device we use on a daily basis. Note that complicit does not mean responsible, but certainly part of the problem.
In an odd bit of synchronicity, I first became aware of the situation only a day before the story appeared in the Times. After many months of falling behind on the NPR program This American Life, I listened to an episode titled “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” (Jan. 6, 2012), in which Mike Daisey performs an excerpt from his one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” It’s about what he did when he found out about the existence of these Chinese factories: He went to China and lied his way into the factories to see firsthand where Apple’s products come from, and he interviewed dozens of workers–some of whom were underage girls age 12, 13, 14–to find out what those computers really cost.
I don’t know what I personally can do to improve working conditions in China, or what any of us can do. Raise awareness, I suppose. Put pressure on Apple and other American companies. Get the government involved? As horrible as the factories’ treatment of their employees is, they exist in a country with very different values from ours. The factories create jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and they do provide opportunities for better lives, though not without incredible risk of causing disfiguration, disability, or even death. Then there are the suicides, 12 in 2010 alone.
We can, perhaps, decide with our dollars, just as the corporations do when they give places like the factories at Foxconn their business. But are we willing to pay even more for the new iPhone, if production costs rise because Apple decides to spend more to make sure they’re made right? Humanely? I’m not suggesting anyone boycott the companies that make our tools, because that won’t necessarily solve the problem either. Mike Dailey suggests we simply try to improve conditions over there, the way they were improved over the course of a century at home. It isn’t simple, but it’s a step in the right direction. It might, at least, ease our consciences a little.
And maybe that’s what the fuss is over. Though I was horrified that this is happening, I wasn’t really surprised. We know sweatshops exist. Is this any different from pressuring Nike or K-Mart to become more involved in regulating conditions in their factories? I’m almost ashamed because I was more shocked that, as Daisey points out, all of the “crap” we buy–the technology we’re so proud of, the tools we depend on, the machines that epitomize modern society–is made in a place most of us have never heard of. The idea that an largely unknown city of 14 million, Shenzen (aka “China” as in “Made in”), is responsible for handcrafting every piece of electronics we use is bizarre and mindblowing.
Either we knew this place had to exist, deep down, or we didn’t want to think about it.
However you respond is a personal decision. This is not a call to action but a call to think. As I type this blog post on my laptop made in “China,” and check Twitter on my Droid phone (not an iPhone, but just as surely made over there, on the other side of world), I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around this. I already know that I’m not going to give up the things that make my life easier, what many probably refer to as “necessities,” but now I know where they came from and who they came from, and I’m not sure what to do with that knowledge. It’s like taking a bite of an apple from the Tree of Good and Evil; there’s no going back once you learn about the evils of the world, and maybe you just have to live with it.