Chinese Manufacturing Has Always Been Abusive – Why Blame Apple ONLY?

There was a recent article in the New York Times that pretty much singles out Apple as being to blame for the work conditions in China. Sure, they off-handedly refer to ‘other companies’ and repeatedly say ‘other devices’ as a footnote, but again and again it is Apple, iPhone and iPad that are mentioned.

Apple, the company that was one of the very last consumer electronics companies making stuff in the US while taking heat from everyone about how much their stuff cost and how slow they were to move from platform to platform? All of those other companies – Dell, Compaq, HP, IBM – were faster moving … because they were already running sweatshops in southeast Asia.

Apple, who has published supplier reports for several years and this year stands alone as not only providing detailed data to the public about progress, deficiencies, and an actual list of suppliers?

Before we get too far afield, let’s be clear – one reason that electronics and other products are made so cheaply and scaled so quickly is that there are countries that are able to provide cheap labor, less stringent standards, more flexible construction practices and so on. Whether we are talking about tech products Japan in the 60’s and 70’s, South Korea in the 80’s and 90’s, Taiwan, Indonesia, or China … or other products in Mexico, India, and so on – the common theme is cheap labor, sub-standard treatment, long hours, and eventually attention leads to improvements in conditions and wages … and then to manufacturers moving elsewhere.

The folks at Forbes put together a couple of articles that digs into some more details about all of this stuff, and in specific why the ‘boycott Apple’ stuff is such nonsense. The image at top is from this article, but for more meat head to this one. Here is a sample:

It is precisely because Apple manufactures in China that conditions for manufacturing workers in China are getting better. Better at a rate never seen in human history. And if we were to be realistic about this, instead of spouting nonsense, then we would recognise this basic fact.

And it is that last which is the most important fact about it all. Far from a boycott of Apple products being the best way to better conditions at the manufacturing plants it is the purchase of products from such plants which is, as it has been for the past few decades, making China a richer and better place.

Part of his point is that over the last decade or so wages have risen in China by ~14% per year (compare that with US wages which have actually declined recently), and have ACCELERATED since Apple has become more and more powerful and focused attention on the situation.

The article also quotes some relevant articles from economist Paul Krugman … from 12 YEARS AGO:

“First of all, even if we could assure the workers in Third World export industries of higher wages and better working conditions, this would do nothing for the peasants, day laborers, scavengers, and so on who make up the bulk of these countries’ populations. At best, forcing developing countries to adhere to our labor standards would create a privileged labor aristocracy, leaving the poor majority no better off.

And it might not even do that. The advantages of established First World industries are still formidable. The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved. And since export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in those nations, anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries.

So what does all of that mean? It means that in spite of Apple being a big company, the Chinese government is ultimately the only one who can make these changes. Can companies help to push for the contract manufacturers to clean up their acts and treat workers better? Certainly – and as I have shown Apple is certainly doing that. But when pressure is put on a single company, it becomes a shell game – if the government has a goal of becoming a dominant manufacturing force regardless of the cost … there is only so much an individual company can do. For example, HP and Cisco are helping build a public surveillance infrastructure for China – are you telling me THAT will be used for the betterment of people? And if not them … then I’m sure Dell and someone else would step in, or other similar companies.

I read a comment somewhere that since it is the New York Times there cannot be a bias … and certainly not an anti-Apple bias. That is a very cute but dangerously naive thought – in reality the article is highly biased against Apple. Not necessarily as a specific technology (e.g. Mac vs. PC, iOS vs. Android), but rather against Apple as a huge and highly profitable company. The New York Times is suggesting things that seem reasonable from a simplistic view, but as Krugman explained and history has shown, are simply not true.

The issue, as always, is that treating the symptoms seldom cures the root cause.

If we want to get to the root cause we need to look in the mirror. WE are the reason all of our electronics are made in China, WE are the reason all of our clothes come from India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, WE are the reason all of our glassware is made in either China or a third world country like Mexico, WE are the reason that Wal-Mart has decimated all other retailers with a low-cost at all costs policy. We are unwilling to pay what it costs to make things here, and unwilling to accept the infrastructure that allows things to be so rapidly advanced elsewhere.

If we want to change conditions in China, we first need to change things here at home. Blaming someone else for our own problems might make us feel better as we bash the big evil company … but it doesn’t help improve the situation.

Categories: Editorials, Rants and Raves

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4 replies

  1. I agree.  It’s true about MUCH of the manufacturing done in the world today – it goes where it’s cheaper, more flexible, etc.  Apple gets called out precisely because they ARE more open – far more open in many cases – than others about their labor practices.  That openness also makes them an easy target for these kinds of attacks.  Yes, there are labor problems in China – there were similar problems here during our industrial revolution.  Anyone remember that little piece of our own history?  The trick is to accelerate them through it – not to pull back and do things that will stop the progress.   Boycotting Chinese manufacturing would be absolutely the wrong move now that the genie is out of the bottle.  We need to encourage it because as Chinese (and others) personal incomes improve, so will their demands for better conditions.  Its the way this stuff works.  

  2. I think the answer is pretty simple. Apple is fully in the spotlight, who else better to exploit than them. Not that MS was any less evil back in the day with their practices, but I think the same followed suit. Everyone is always going to pick on those on top.