Have you visited the New York Times to read Charles Duhigg and David Barboza’s analysis of the working conditions in the Chinese factories that work with Apple? It’s not really news, given how many other journalists and bloggers have been compiling similar articles these days, but it’s very, very thorough.
As usual, I’m struck by a few things. For instance, this focus on Apple. Apple is a big customer of Foxconn’s, but so is Microsoft. So is Nintendo. Logitech, Amazon, Panasonic - in fact, it starts to look as though Foxconn may have had a hand in most of the consumer electronics we’re currently surrounded by, doesn’t it?
And Duhigg and Barboza do a laughable job of addressing that fact. On the final page of the article, there is one paragraph - just one - that mentions a tech company other than Apple:
“Some other technology companies operate differently.
‘We talk to a lot of outsiders,’ said Gary Niekerk, director of corporate citizenship at Intel. ‘The world’s complex, and unless we’re dialoguing with outside groups, we miss a lot.’”
Of course, Intel also works with Foxconn.
This is link baiting of the highest order. Apple is, shall we say, in the news these days. And in our hands, and on our desks, and in our bags. There’s practically an industry devoted solely to cover its actions, and that legion of blogs will pick up an article like this and spread it like wildfire. Just as I’m doing right now. These methods work.
A little context would help. We’ve heard that Foxconn workers have committed suicide and that it’s probably Apple’s fault, right? But two weeks ago, when 140 Foxconn employees threatened to kill themselves, it wasn’t in a factory that was creating Apple products. It seems to have been Microsoft products, actually. But Microsoft quibbles about the matter - they weren’t going to kill themselves over working conditions, apparently, they were going to kill themselves over staffing conditions.
Well, that certainly makes it all better.
Oh, and that huge controversy about Foxconn being such a terrible place to work that workers kill themselves all the time? Well, that’s turned out to be a bit of a convenient media narrative. Patrick Mattimore from the Institute for Analytic Journalism took a look at the numbers way back at the start of this mess, and Tom Foremski at ZDNet checked them over. Turns out working at Foxconn actually decreases the chance Chinese people will kill themselves. Those numbers don’t stop people from claiming that Apple’s suppliers are so bad people would rather die, but they probably should.
So frankly, I’m a little tired of hearing how terrible Apple is. This focus on Apple is pure headline grabbing, and it’s kind of gross.
Because you know what? All of these companies should be doing more. Including Apple. Don’t make this political, don’t make this about getting more pageviews by being precious about the whole thing. The vast majority of the consumer electronics we use have a real human cost, and by quibbling about which companies are more responsible or which factories are worse than others, we’re taking focus away from the real issue: people are dying to make our cellphones. They’re dying to make our laptops, and our televisions, and our consoles.
We probably ought to speak with our wallets - learn which companies are letting people die on their supply lines and stop giving them our money. We ought to, but we won’t. But the least we can do, the very least, is stop being so partisan about this. People are dying so that we can have the latest, coolest gadgets sooner and cheaper, and we’re arguing about whether Apple’s worse than its competitors for letting it happen or whether that’s just the way things go in China.
And no, the solution isn’t to insist Apple (and all other tech companies, well we’re at it) should manufacturer everything in America. There are some very good reasons they can’t.
But maybe we can consider whether these companies could do better. We can insist that we’re not just playing favorites when we call a company to task for its actions. We can insist that these things matter even when an article has a slant we don’t really like. We can insist that the lives of workers are worth more than the fanboy wars.
When journalists like Duhigg and Barboza write an article like the one the New York Times published yesterday, they are a teeny, tiny bit of the problem. By focusing their attention on only one company just because that company is attention-grabbing, they’re letting a lot of people off scot free, and they’re opening themselves up to this kind of bickering over context.
But they’re a much bigger part of the solution, because they’re doing their research, they’re digging up the truth, they’re presenting it to us and we need to know. Even if that knowledge conflicts with our beliefs about the corporations we’re loyal to, we need to know. And we need to stop brushing it aside. If you haven’t read their article, if you’ve just been nodding along with my criticisms, go read it. You need to know.
Yeah, conditions for factory workers in China are pretty much bad across the board. Yeah, Foxconn is probably better than some of its competitors, and Apple is better than some other companies about taking responsibility for its supply chain. But tell me you have nearly $100 billion in cash and liquid assets on hand and you know what? I think you can do better. I think Duhigg and Barboza have a point about cutting supplier margins to make more profit. I think you can afford to take a more active interest in what your supply chain is doing, and to use those impressive negotiating tactics to improve the lives of the people making your devices.
And I think you’re not the only ones who can do that.
So tech industry, it’s time to step up and take care of your people. Fanboys and girls, it’s time to step down even when you know an article has a slant that’s not completely fair. All of us need to accept that there is a human cost to our devices, and we need to accept that the human cost doesn’t have to be as high as it is. And then we need to demand better.