To understand what I mean, you should look up and listen to a podcast, "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," on This American Life. Mike Daisey is even more enamored of Apple than I, but recently learned more than he ever wanted to know about the factories that make them and just about all the digital electronic gadgets we use. He traveled to Shenzhen, China, where Apple supplier Foxconn has its largest campus, to interview workers with the help of a translator, and to tour some of the factories where related parts are made.
He talked to workers as young as 13, workers whose normal workday is 12 to 16 hours, workers who live in dormitories where occupants sleep in narrow bunks stacked on top of one another, much smaller than any Caucasian could fit into. Instances of worker suicide have become so common that nets have been suspended on the sides of factory buildings to prevent jumpers from killing themselves.
A chemical called n-hexane is used in the factories to polish screens because it evaporates more quickly than other substances, but it also causes nerve damage and muscular atrophy in workers, many of whom are not adequately compensated when they permanently lose their motor skills and can no longer work. These issues that affect the working community could be alleviated, if the profit motive was kept in perspective rather than being the only factor that matters.
You might say these conditions exist in China, we have no influence there. But our companies already have in place auditing systems that investigate working conditions, and can make improving those conditions part of the requirements for qualifying as suppliers. Such audits are made regularly already, but it appears that for the sake of profits, many trespasses are overlooked.
Strikes in southern China have begun to bring about some improvements for workers, particularly wage increases, as much as 30-40%. But Apple supplier Foxconn has proposed a solution that we all knew was coming: use robots for many of the repetitive tasks now being performed by human workers. No salary increases, no work environment improvements, no suicides or chemical injuries. Just pure profit.
Apple and other corporations that sell enormously popular computers and electronic gadgets have made their stockholders and executives fabulously wealthy. But they didn't create this wealth by themselves. They may be smart, well-educated, innovative and energetic, but they are not "self-made men."
Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for Senate, had this message for our corporate leaders:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But... you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Makes sense to me.