I often complain about how just about everything is made in China these days. It’s about the exploitation of workers for the sake of cheaper goods. Well, in case you didn’t hear about it, a worker at the Chinese factory that makes iPhones committed suicide recently because he lost a prototype fourth-generation iPhone. And why did he commit suicide over this? Because he was apparently being tortured by his employers (Foxconn) over it. Presumably because this is the kind of mistake that might cost Foxconn their lucrative contract with Apple.
What was that factory worker’s life worth? Less than Foxconn’s iPhone manufacturing contract? Less than Apple’s potentially stolen trade secrets?
“Fake Steve Jobs” has posted a blog entry on the matter. If you’ve never read his blog before, the tone may be a bit shocking to you, but cut through the parody and there are a couple of paragraphs here that are probably the best critique ever of our reliance on cheap Chinese labor to manufacture the high-tech, low-cost devices we consume so voraciously:
Well, this is the world we are living in. These are the people we are dealing with. This is how we have to deal with them. We can’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the quality would be about half what we get out of China. But these guys play rough. They really do. They are not nice people. And, though we talk a good game about how we insist on workers being treated with dignity, blah blah blah, well, I mean, come on. Have you ever been to China? We have. We’ve been to China. We know what goes on there. We know how they open your mail, and listen to your phone calls, and let their factories pollute like crazy and exploit workers, all in the name of progress. And we turn a blind eye to it. We let them know when we’re coming to visit, and they give us a tour and put on a little show of how great things are, and how wonderful the dorm life is, and afterward we pretend to keep an eye on them — but it’s all theater. It is. We know it. What’s more, you know it. Everyone knows it.
We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.
I’ve read plenty about the conditions in Chinese factories, enough to make me want to never buy anything that says “Made in China” on the label. But, honestly, that’s getting nearly impossible these days. It’s not just about being too cheap to buy the more expensive version of the product made somewhere else with better labor laws; it’s that in many cases there is no other option that wasn’t also made in China.
Apple products present the biggest dilemma for me personally. I’ve been a Mac-o-phile for over 15 years. I’ve staked my livelihood around work that depends integrally on things Apple makes, and they’re all made in China. And Apple’s not alone — as far as I know, all of the major computer companies contract out their manufacturing to Chinese firms. I suppose I could build my own PCs and switch to Linux, but even then, it would be hard to find all of the necessary components that go into a computer, with a “nothing-made-in-China” restriction.
So, for me, in many cases, boycotting Chinese-made goods is simply impossible. But I do what I can. If there’s another option, I’ll take it. I’m willing to pay more if I have to. And even though I’m writing this on an Apple computer that was manufactured in one of these same Chinese factories, perhaps speaking out on the matter is some small penance for my complicity in what’s going on.