Apple and China: What We Knew and When

I'm in this picture, but even I don't recognize me. It's because we're all dressed up in bunny suits: light cloth or paper coveralls and booties and hoods and face masks you wear in a clean room where microchips or sensitive equipment is manufactured. If you don't wear a bunny suit every day, you feel (and look) silly.

Over the last 25 years or so, I've donned many a bunny suit during visits to numerous factories in Japan and South Korea and witnessed a sea of young, bunny-suited or uniformed factory workers toiling in stultifyingly sterile factories repetitively assembling cellphones, PCs, TVs, VCRs, DVD players, washing machines, microwave ovens, refrigerators, air conditioners, etc.

It's how our gadgets are made, like it or not. So the recent "exposés" about working conditions in Chinese factories making iPads, iPhones and iPods perhaps shock but don't surprise me, and they shouldn't surprise you.

Apple has been called to task recently about working conditions at factories it contracts with in China owned by Foxconn, first by two New York Times' "exposés," "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into An iPad," and, earlier this week in several stories and videos on CNN.

How do these factories compare to the ones I've visited in Japan and South Korea? Under communist totalitarian rule, Chinese factories are less open to public scrutiny than in Japan or South Korea. But from the reports I've seen, the actual factory work and the dorm-living workforce (mostly young women) performing it seems similar to the factories I toured.

I am alternately fascinated by the meticulous, orderly efficiency of these factories, and horrified by the thought "better them than me." And so, I'll admit I've always felt a twinge of guilt knowing the source of the toys I get to play with.

And now you know as well — although I suspect we all knew or at least suspected, but we're all cursed with a case of willful blindness.

Guilt Assuaging

Here are some facts to assuage our guilt.

First, Apple appears to understand both the human and PR problem. Since 2005, the company has conducted an annual "Apple Supplier Responsibility" audit. Essentially, Apple has a code of conduct it demands its suppliers live up to.

In addition, Apple is getting a semi-seal of approval from the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), which disputed some of the Times' reporting of its point-of-view and defended Apple's audit efforts. In addition, Apple has opened its supply chain to independent audit by the Fair Labor Association.

Whatever its motivation, moral or PR, I can only hope Apple — and all other companies that manufacture gear in China — will do its utmost to live up to its stated intentions and coerce its factories to do the same.

Second, we have to put these Chinese factory conditions into their proper cultural context — Asian cultural sublimation of individualism and the rice-paddy work ethic.

As an example of the former, reacquaint yourself with the frighteningly efficient opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As an example of the latter, check out Chapter 8, "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success, especially the chapter's sub-heading, "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."

Finally, not all Chinese demonize Apple's presence there. The Times' collected reactions from Chinese readers, which included this fascinating response, answering the question of what the hundred of thousands of workers would be doing if not building our iPhones, iPads and iPhones:

"If people saw what kind of life workers lived before they found a job at Foxconn, they would come to an opposite conclusion of this story: that Apple is such a philanthropist."

Where Are Apple's U.S. Jobs?

Well, if Apple can't control work conditions in China, why doesn't the company use its astounding profits to bring jobs back to the U.S., some hand-wringers are asking.

Oh, if the world were only that simple.

First, how long would Apple's products would remain cheaper than its competitors — and therefore sell in the volumes that makes the company so ridiculously profitable — if it built and operated union factories in the U.S.?

Easy — not well. Flash back 20 years when Apple's products were more expensive than anyone else's and the company nearly went bankrupt.

Second, who would work at these U.S. Apple factories? Even if Apple could find several hundred thousand workers willing to put aside twittering about Demi Moore to work as fastidiously and meticulously as the Chinese, we lack the 30,000 trained engineers to staff these fanciful U.S. Apple factories, as Steve Jobs himself told President Obama at a dinner with Silicon Valley bigwigs a year ago.

This may come off as rationalisation and Apple apologetic, but if we buy gadgets, especially affordable gadgets, we have to accept this is how they are made, regardless of the company making — everyone makes their products in Asia.

Are Japanese or South Korean TV, cellphone, Blu-ray, PC factories demonstrably more humane? I don't know, but if they are, it can't be by much based on what I've seen. Factory work on the massive scale necessary to fulfill our gadget needs, no matter how human, is by definition stultifying and inhumane. And we all knew it well before these exposés.

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