Jag Venugopal's Blog

June 11, 2010

Is your new iPad/iPhone a “Blood Diamond”?

Filed under: Digital Living — Jag @ 10:38 am

Professor Keith Murray (who BTW is dean of the Graduate Program at my Alma Mater, Bryant University) speculates on whether we can compare Apple’s latest offerings to blood diamonds. This is in light of the reported suicides and working conditions at Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn. The thought that people have killed themselves producing the goods we consume is something we find significantly disturbing. And as a result, we’ve been looking for ways to understand, and address the problem. Some of us (Dean Murray being one) seem to imply that our consumer culture forces these unfortunate occurrences. Others (e.g. Apple) have insisted that their supplier increase salaries by 30%, and have absorbed the cost.

I don’t believe we understand what is happening. We need to diagnose before we prescribe. The question is — what is causing the suicides? Is it low pay? Long hours? Lack of opportunities for socializing (most workers are migrants from rural areas according to one report)? Why did they simply not resign or look for jobs elsewhere? Given that China is booming, surely, they would have found better jobs? Also, what if the Apple-induced wage hike does not fix the suicide problem?

As I read about this unfortunate set of incidents, one thought came to mind: There is no workers’ union! In a “communist” country that declares its government to be a “dictatorship of the working classes“, it is ironic that a factory as large as Foxconn’s does not have workers’ representatives with any clout whatsoever.

One possible solution, and in fact the only robust solution I can think of, is to let employees have a voice, and form a union. And then, to have appropriate labor laws that give such unions bargaining power (e.g. recognition as bargaining representative, prohibitions against union busting, etc). The employees, through their union can bargain or agitate for what’s important to them. Western businesses and governments can pressure China to create a labor market without coercion, where employees are free to leave an employer to seek alternate employment, and if need be, to strike for better conditions. We can put our money where our mouth is — if suppliers refuse to recognize unions, we can take our business elsewhere.

Rather than tinker around with our ideas on what constitutes a living wage for a different part of the world and a set of circumstances different from ours, I would place my bets on pressuring China to ensure worker freedoms and ability to organize. And then, let the open market dictate the wages.


1 Comment »

  1. Jag,
    I got a copy of your comments on the Blood Diamonds piece…and you address some critical areas. When I think about the points you make, your POV is very deliberate and thoughtful. My sense from the reporting that I read is that there is an effective indentured servitude mentality at work here in large part because Foxconn’s capitalizing on very young workers, working them excessively, and they’re unsophistication at how to respond to oppressive circumstances.

    The work seems highly regimented–even for a developing country–and the work hours are simply oppressive. Raising pay is really not the solution in my opinion, for it ignores what at a felt level is bothering these young workers…the ability to live a semi-balanced life, work that is meaningful, etc.

    You raise the issue of whether there’s a certifiably problem–but I think the consistency and the equivalency of reportage convinces me that there are serious problems. Couple all of this with the demands by Apple [maybe others] to satisfy consumer demands back here, state-side. It is all seems to make sense and point to a regrettable problem.

    Your comments regarding pay are appropriate–and I’m not prepared to say what the right wage is. Having lived myself in a third-world country, I’m not prepared to argue that U.S. standards at the measure of what’s right. In the case of the Blood iPhones–I couldn’t with any authority say. Maybe it just a matter of honoring the concept of over-time!

    Always nice to read your comments. I look forward to your observations. KBM

    Comment by Keith Murray — June 11, 2010 @ 10:41 am | Reply

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