the secret city

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.

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13 Responses to “the secret city”


  • I’ve been struggling with this idea a lot lately (for me the “aha” moment was seeing a photo of the Occupy protestors with little arrows pointing out every device and article of clothing made by a major corporation, often in another country). It’s tempting to react by just boycotting, but where would that leave us? I’m not sure it solves the problem in the long run – I mean public awareness was raised about Nike and K-Mart YEARS ago and yet here we are again with Apple now. I’m a great admirer of the Apple product line, but this news leaves me deeply unsettled. Wish I had an answer, but I’m really grateful for your thoughtful take on it.

    • I hadn’t seen that photo, but I bet that’s an eye opener. Boycotting is so unfeasible, not least because we, unfortunately, do depend on these devices today. But I hope that opening the discussion will have some impact and apply some pressure to the corporations to increase their efforts. The problem only “goes away” if we forget about it.

  • A lot can be done by the client corporations in response to boycotts or other actions, actually, though I agree the answer isn’t to boycott an entire industry. The article was focused on Apple, but it mentioned other companies as doing much better, including some it also mentioned as being Foxconn clients. (Foxconn is surely big enough to manage different factories with different conditions.)

    That said, I believe the best chance to drive improvement from here in the west is – as is often the case on rights issues – the government. China has a lot of societal problems that its government either causes (lack of freedom) or is complicit in (lack of workplace safety regulations). We’ve been using diplomacy to lean on them mainly for the former, but with the trade balance the way it is, we probably have a lot more leverage to change the latter. Tariffs or similar measures that are predicated on changes to these sorts of practices would have an effect comparable to across-the-board demands by these US corporate clients. If the tariff were about double the incremental cost to improve conditions there, all their clients would be demanding it.

    I don’t mean to imply there’s a magic bullet – real change will probably have to come from within the country, and as long as the financial incentive exists, corporations (which, no one forget, exist to make profits) will remain complicit – but there is leverage to make some change, and government has more of that leverage than even Apple.

    To be clear, China is certainly in a position to remain competitive on price while providing better conditions than these, that haven’t been considered acceptable here for a hundred years. We’re talking about things that would increase the unit cost of an iPhone by what? $10 at the ABSOLUTE maximum? Likely less. (Bear in mind that before carrier incentives an iPhone is over $600.) It’s not a choice between this and throwing out modern technology.

    In any event, you’re right that people should be aware, and should bear these things in mind, whatever they choose to do (or not) about them. I’d hope that most would choose to do SOMETHING.

    • Government pressure would carry more weight, but am I being too cynical if I also argue that the corporations pressure the government? I do want to think the best of corporations like Apple, and in the consumers who give them their money. Because you’re right, if you’ll pay $500 for an iPad, you can probably manage $510 without blinking too much.

  • Great post, Eugene. I am also way behind on my TAL listening, but I’ll have to make sure to catch that one.

    Another issue that’s related to the ones you discuss here is the need for rare-earth minerals for phone and computer batteries and other components that can only be found in conflict-torn places like the eastern DRC in Africa. (Some more info in this article: http://www.enoughproject.org/publications/mine-mobile-phone) Environmental impact of mining these minerals aside, it’s almost impossible to ensure that the profits from buying them don’t go to fund armed conflict and genocide. And if a company just says “OK, we’ll stop buying minerals from the DRC completely,” that creates a new set of problems: 1) thousands of the poorest people on earth, formerly employed by the mines, suddenly lose their only possible source of income, and 2) as big companies pull out of the country, there’s even less of an international community to bear witness to the crimes that may take place there.

    It’s a tough issue. International corporations can bring jobs and (relative) prosperity to developing nations, and what seems like a terrible, abusive job to us in the west is, for some people, the only thing that stands between them and starvation/abject poverty. When different cultures with different norms come together, someone’s sensibilities are going to be offended.

    But I think that it just all comes down to economics in the end. If everyone in factories or mines had better hours and benefits and higher wages for less work, less stuff would get produced and it would cost consumers more. Which is fine by me, but would most of rampantly-consumerist America accept it? I hope that, as our population gradually becomes more aware of environmental and human rights issues, they will take these issues into account when making purchases, but it’s going to be a slow shift. As for putting pressure on foreign governments, a strong central one like China’s would have the power to set higher standards for workers and enforce them if it wants to, so it may be worth continuing to place pressure there…but a place like DRC barely has a central government, so any sort of changes in practices in a place like that are going to have to come from the private companies themselves.

    • Thanks for bringing that up–I hadn’t even considered that side of the issue. I just… I need to start paying more attention to things like this. And I think you’re right that we as a nation, or as a group of whomever has the buying power that drives the economy, need to play some part in reacting to these kinds of moral and humanistic questions. But I also absolutely understand why so many of us ignore it and say it’s none of our business. It’s easier, certainly, and we have our own problems. But if we’re truly going to shift into a global community, then whatever happens on the other side of the world affects us too. It already does, when there’s a shortage of laptops because they can’t get the right screens for them and all that, but it has to affect us on a more emotional and personal level too.

  • By the way, we’re only getting part of the conversation on this blog. People are also commenting on a mirrored post over at LJ, if you’re interested in checking out some other ideas and perspectives: http://ecmyers.livejournal.com/333356.html

    And thank you, everyone who takes the time to read this, even if you don’t join the conversation. I don’t have any answers for all this, but we’re starting to come up with some good questions.

  • My $.02 : It’s falling into Apple’s game to say that if we want cheap products this is what we have to put up with. Um, no. They could quite easily make less profits. Like, really easily and still be hugely in the black. They choose not to. They choose somewhat higher profits off the back of workers who are being hurt, maimed, worked to death, and driven to suicide. I think being loud and angry about this issue, especially to Apple who is nothing except an image, might very well make some changes.
    I hope so. And I’m pissed off enough that I’m never buying another apple product until they do. Maybe this is just symbolic. Maybe there’s no electronics that are ethically made. I don’t know. But Apple’s response to all this is despicable.

    • I’m starting to wonder if that might be an option. Honestly, I haven’t looked into what other people are saying about this, if they’re holding Apple accountable, and whether Apple has issued a new response yet. But it does come down to a decision as a country, and from corporations, and by people like us every day. Me boycotting Apple wouldn’t have much effect since our only transactions are through my occasional purchases on iTunes, but I admire you for making that choice. I’m going to spend more time researching what companies, if any, have more ethical standards, and hopefully they still manage to make good, affordable products…

  • This validates the need for greater income – remember money is energy – energy has power & with the power you can decide how best to use it.

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