I just listened to a This American Life episode about the working conditions in which all of our electronic crap is made in China. It is really quite eye-opening, and it is amazing yet totally predictable that pieces like this are not more common.
Our economic model (capitalism) guarantees that these atrocious working conditions will exist. Capitalism turns everything, including people, into mere objects. When you have an iPhone, it is just an iPhone. It is not this particular unique piece that contains aluminum from a particular mine and made by a particular person with their own unique feelings, wants, needs, fears, and passions.
The person that made your iPhone in fact does not have time or space to express themselves as a unique human. During their 12 to 16-hour working day, they aren’t even allowed to talk to their coworkers while on the assembly line. They then go “home” to a 12′ x 12′ dormitory containing 15 beds. There are even cameras in their dormitories.
One Foxconn (the actual manufacturer of Apple crap) worker died after working for 34 hours straight. Other workers are poisoned from hexane, losing use of their hands in their 20s, or even dying from it. If they complain to the official government agency about working conditions, they get put on an official government blacklist. With nowhere to turn, many workers choose to end their life.
And of course Apple and Foxconn did not want to talk to Ira Glass. They, like all of us, see what they want to see. Apple complains a certain amount about the working conditions, but clearly not enough to prevent all of the above from happening consistently year after year.
The New York Times “liberal” Paul Krugman and “conservative” Nicholas Kristof actually speak highly of the current economic phase that China is in. Kristof actually has an article titled Two Cheers for Sweatshops. Sure, there may be problems with sweatshops, they say, but the lives of the workers are better than they were when living in their hovels. At least Kristof is honest enough to call them sweatshops. Steve Jobs wouldn’t even admit that Foxconn was a sweatshop.
You’re officially allowed to stop celebrating the life of Steve Jobs. Certainly, we’re all guilty in this globalized system. It’s complex. But the level of guilt is on a continuum from “just trying to get by” to “massively profiting from the misery of others and the destruction of our planet.” Steve Jobs was on the latter end of this spectrum.
It always amazes me that these people, people like Jobs, Kristof, Krugman, and almost any economist, are actually taken seriously. How poor are our critical thinking skills that we accept their dichotomy of abject poverty on the one hand and sweatshops on the other? Why should the lives of people in third world countries be reduced to these two choices? And how little respect we must have for these people to never realize that it is not up to us to decide what is best for them? It is our responsibility, in fact, to instead model our world around giving people their due human rights and then letting them decide what is best for themselves.
Props to my friend Greg for linking to the This American Life episode that inspired this post. This post was tapped out on an Apple Macbook Pro 15″.