Apple was recently named the world’s largest corporation and rumored to be sitting on a cash reserve approaching $100 billion they haven’t a clue what to do with. Founders Steve Wosniak and Steve Jobs began life as tree hugging, college drop out, mantra chanting hippies from the 60s and ended up with mega-millions having given birth to a corporate giant.
I have never been an Apple fan but do admit that whoever was responsible for the design of their products was a genius. There is no comparison to just how cool Apple’s gadgets look and feel. But, all that coolness comes at a price. Apple gadgets do nothing more than those made by others and often they don’t do it as well. This has especially been true in the world of PCs. Traditionally Apple computers haven’t performed as well, been as compatible, as easy or affordable to upgrade or repair, or as economical to purchase. Every device Apple sells carries a premium for the name alone and untold numbers are willing to fork up that premium.
The upside is that Apple has come from the brink of financial collapse to where it sits in the business world today. The downside being its position has been built on the shoulders of untold millions of underpaid, ill-kept, factory workers in the backwaters and mega cities of Asia.
This essay came out of watching playwright and performer, Mike Daisey, on a recent episode of Bill Maher. Daisey wrote and is performing in a one-man play titled The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It is not the story of Steve Jobs as much as a story about our love affair with the creations of Job’s mind and where those creations are manufactured. They are not manufactured in America and subject to the environmental and labor policies that govern American industry and protect American workers. Instead they are manufactured where a huge percentage of the world’s electronics come from, the city of Shenzhen, China. A huge Chinese city where labor and environmental laws either don’t exists for are mainly ignored.
A major maker of Apple’s products is a company named Foxconn and Foxconn made the headlines recently because a number of its employees climbed to the top of the four-story factory and threatened mass suicide over working conditions. In an earlier protest 18 Foxconn employees actually threw themselves off a roof in protest. One employee died on the job after having worked a 34-hour shift. The Foxconn factory in Shenzhen is so large it employees over 100,000 persons and it is but one factory in this electronic enclave of 11 million people. A major irony is the majority of these millions of employees cannot afford to purchase the very products they play a role in making.
That’s not the only irony. Every time Apple brings out a new product or version of an existing product and the lines of potential buyers begin to form in the developed world, the work load on Foxconn’s employees multiplies and conditions worsen. Keep this in mind next time you see those news items about people camping out in tents and lining up for the iPad 3 to be released. For every happy face picture the untold suffering faces laboring in horrid conditions so the shelves of Apple’s stores can be filled with product.
I’m typing this article on a Toshiba laptop and wish I could smugly claim I wasn’t playing a role in all this. But such is not the case. Every person who owns a piece of electronics these days is contributing to the problem. The same Foxconn factory that made your iPad 2 also made the case of an Acer laptop I own and only Foxconn and the Chinese government know what other companies they make components for.
The only slack I can cut myself is not being much of a supporter of Apple products and paying that premium I mentioned earlier. That Apple is sitting on a huge wad of cash while having their products manufactured in a far away nation under what some describe as brutal conditions places a certain “bad” on Apple users that I can rationalize away. But then again, I’m pretty sure you can stare at your iPod, fondle your iPhone, and drool on your iPad with little sense of guilt.
Seriously though, wouldn’t it be nice if all us technology geeks rose up and demanded that manufacturers like Apple bring their products back home for manufacturer or at least give up a little profit margin to make life a touch better for those toiling their lives away in some distant Chinese city? I think so!