Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Apple and Third World Labour

I think every generation needs to read and also re-read the book "No Logo" by Naomi Klein. The subtitle of the book is 'Taking Aim at the the Brand Bullies'. it should be read, because it seems every industry will eventually pull the stunts that were visible during the writing of the book. When the early '00's happened, people were just starting to understand the human cost of globalization, how the shipping of jobs from the West to the East was due to one thing and that was cost. Also, we witness the rise of brands as culture. No longer were people simply making and selling a piece of garment or a running shoe, they were experiencing the zeitgeist of that product. I know the word more means 'spirit of the times', but there was a desire to paint the logo so strongly onto culture that the two became inseparable. Just think about Nike's 'Just Do It', that was an attempt to transcend simple sports into an entire lifestyle. As well, there was Gap, with their marketing.

What needs to be understood is that neither Nike or the Gap were the worst offenders, or that they were the only one, but rather they came to symbolized an entire segment of their retail division. They were the forerunners and as such they drew the most attention. They did attempt to change, but at first a lot of it was smoke screen, attempts to draw attention from the excesses to make it sound like it was a good thing.

I suppose there is an argument that at least these companies were bringing jobs to many of these nations and at least part of the good news was things were a bit better. Certainly better then picking garbage out of the town dump for recycled material. I will give you that. Not much more, but at least there was that element.

Now, let's fast forward to this new decade and we have a new villian, and that is Apple. The New York Times featured an article which examined what is happening in those plants in China.

Some of the issues are:
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

On one hand, these are nothing new, just go back 10 years and read about the sweatshop conditions which made your favourite overpriced running shoe.

As before, Apple has its defenders, the 1% will always look after each other, Forbes had this article. It goes from 'how silly are those detractors' to that famous arguement, 'everybody else is doing it, why pick on Apple!". Read the above, Apple is the leader, the shining star, it attracts the most attention, therefore it attracts the most heat.

What is disturbing, and this might make the issue different, Apple has its legions of fanboys and girls who will spring to its defense.

Consider this tweet from Stephen Fry:
Less than 25% of Foxconn make Apple products, the rest is Dell, HP &c. But the real point is this http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/01/29/the-apple-boycott-people-are-spouting-nonsense-about-chinese-manufacturing/2/

Then there is the article in PCMag.com which state that thousands of people want jobs with Foxcomm. I guess the idea is, that if so many people want those jobs it really can't be that bad.

I will give you that by statistics, it may not be a bad plant to work and let's be honest live in, the wage is pretty good and even though you may be forced to work 12 hours a day for 7 days, or face the fact that you could be fired so a nine year old could take your place. Hey, but that's life.

On the past week episode of TWIT, one of the panelist suggested that what is happening in china is not any different to what happened in the West 75 years ago. I'm not sure of her point, I suspect that it meant, it wasn't so bad. If I may make a counter-point, the way things were 75 or 100 years ago were the way things were all over, it was a global movement, fought in each nation, that brought about work and wage standards. We can't simply say, well, they aren't there yet, because it's not like this is all a new battle. The battle in China is not to advance workers' rights, but rather the battle is by industry and the government to keep those rights from happening.

This is why Apple is getting hit over the head. It makes the products that are shiny and cool and while we in the West are enjoying the cost of purchase, we do need to be reminded there is a human side of this, and while some may not like to read about it, it is the truth.

Apple is getting it because they are in the lead. Hopefully they will look back and see what happened to Nike et al, when they tried to dismiss it, or use PR babble to get away with it.

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