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Apologizing for Exploitation

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Tom Krazit at Paid Content has a piece up apologizing for Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers in the creation of its products. Krazit argues that Apple really can’t do anything about the problem–the jobs aren’t coming back to the US, it would be too risky for Apple to open its own factory, and China might not allow any real reform anyway.

Most of this is hogwash. The idea that an enormous multinational corporation which just had one of the most profitable quarters in the history of any corporation in the history of the human race is completely incapable of paying its workers a living wage would be laughable if it it didn’t shill for immorality. Take this paragraph for instance:

The truth is that an entire consumer electronics industry depends on these factories for their livelihoods; the dozens of companies and millions of people that have made a handsome living on the spread of mobile technology, gaming consoles, and high-definition televisions into everyone’s lives. And China depends on the demand for its manufacturing services driven by Western consumers who want quality goods at a low price, knowing that few other operations are able to hit those targets as consistently as its homegrown manufacturing base.

OK, but how does this get in the way of paying a decent wage. Apple prices are not low and people are desperate to own its products, but even given the general principle that people want to buy things for cheap, it’s not at all clear that you can’t provide reasonably priced goods and pay people good wages. We did this during the great period of unionization in this country after World War II; admittedly, our level of consumer spending was not so high as it is today, but people also witnessed rapidly increasing consumer power during those years. Even outside of that, given Apple’s gargantuan profits, there’s no way they can’t ensure better working conditions through throwing their considerable corporate weight around. Those contractors do whatever the corporations want them to do. They want so much product at so much cost. And they get it to them. This does not have to be a constant downward. If the corporations want the contractors to pay more, that will happen.

Krazit’s one point worth serious discussion is the role of the Chinese government, who may well be obfuscating any information coming out about their workers’ lives and who could theoretically provide a structural barrier to a corporation wanting to pay its workers more (assuming any of us take seriously the idea that Apple executives really care all that much about how these workers live, which I most certainly do not). If China truly sees its future as providing cheap manufacturing labor, I can see why it might want to discourage one company from paying too much in the fear of driving off other companies. But that’s happening already. As China begins transitioning to a more mature and wealthy society and as workers get sick of dying in factories and having babies born with cancer, companies are moving to Bangladesh, Vietnam, and other nations with working conditions even more wretched. And while I don’t doubt the power of the Chinese government, I do not at all buy the presumption that Apple is somehow helpless to improve their workers’ lives in the face of the Chinese government. This is patently absurd.

Apple could do any number of things if it were serious about allowing its workers to live better lives. It could slightly reduce profits and earmark this money specifically for workers’ wages. It could open its own factory in China, hiring skilled technicians and creating a modern version of a company town (a scenario also ripe for abuse, but it isn’t worse than the present situation). It could then allow western reporters, environmental consultations, human rights groups, and whoever else full access to that factory. Even if you take Krazit’s point seriously that they jobs can’t leave China because that’s where the expertise lies (which begs the question of how computers were made before they were in China and what will happen when computer companies move their factories to nations with ever-more degraded labor), it hardly means that corporations are helpless to do anything at all about their workers. It’s that they don’t really want to do so.

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