Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Getting to the bottom of Apple and human cost

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  • BenWilson, in reply to Craig Ranapia,

    I’m one of those people who doesn’t accept that “capitalism” and “the anus of the body politic” are the same thing

    I don't accept that either. Sometimes it works quite well. Sometimes it fucks up badly. Most of the time the question of whether it is working well or fucking up badly depends on where you are when you're saying it.

    In China, it seems to be working well at the moment, at least in terms of generating wealth for a country that is still quite poor. In the "First World", not so much, at least in terms of median incomes, and the quality of life for the bottom .

    I don't think capitalism is incompatible with socialism, but I have a broad definition of both terms. When you define one in contrast to the other, then of course they can't cohabit - if you understand socialist ideals and define capitalism as the negation of these, then you get the stupid situation where capitalism is synonymous with laissez faire. But if you say that socialist ideals can actually be realized by capitalism, then you get much wider flavors of capitalism, like what the Chinese are doing, and First World welfare states.

    These still aren't the only flavors, though. Both of them seem to still fall into what I think is the most pernicious trap of all, something that is not really built in at all, and only reflects our old attitudes about things. This trap is the idea that the only thing humans do that is of any value is work for money, and they must therefore be compelled to work by being deprived of the ability to survive if they don't work for money.

    Which is very silly considering that one of the things capitalism does best is remove the need for human labour. It could relatively simply be reformed to take this into account. But I don't think the world is ready, after all. Valuing humans as ends in themselves, and social organization as a servant to humanity rather than a master, is still a hard concept to internalize, most of us can really only do it for ourselves and the small tribe of people we can personally remember.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8598 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    It’s six years since Human Rights Watch published its report Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants, and it seems precious little has changed since then. Hundreds of thousands of largely immigrant workers face both repetitive strain and acute injury, and are commonly sacked when that happens. Some factories keep workers in line with armed private cops. There are none of the onsite hospitals or recreational facilities you might find at a Foxconn plant. And the US government underwrites the brutality. Under a 2002 Supreme Court ruling, undocumented workers who are illegally fired for union organising are not entitled to back pay for lost wages.

    It is not to diminish at all the case for Apple and other tech companies to raise their game to say that it will be a welcome day when the New York Times sees fit to give over its front page to an investigation of the human hells being created on American soil.

    It's been ten years since US journalist Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, the book that moved the plight of US meat packers into the public's consciousness.

    This aspect of your piece is simply fatuous. What are you saying here? Are you suggesting that the New York Times, the paper of New York Times v Sullivan, is institutionally racist? I'm a shareholder in Apple and a reader of the NYT, and I'm quite comfortable having the NYT run articles of this sort.

    I'm sure there is something happening in New Zealand that you could write about.

    Since Nov 2006 • 605 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to WH,

    Are you suggesting that the New York Times, the paper of New York Times v Sullivan, is institutionally racist?

    I'm pretty sure what he's saying is that American media sources are choosing to focus on worker rights abuses in China while ignoring fairly severe problems on their home turf, even though both are equally newsworthy, and that this is not what you'd want out of a leading newspaper. There's really not much subtext to it.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Are you suggesting that the New York Times, the paper of New York Times v Sullivan, is institutionally racist?

    I’m pretty sure what he’s saying is that American media sources are choosing to focus on worker rights abuses in China while ignoring fairly severe problems on their home turf, even though both are equally newsworthy, and that this is not what you’d want out of a leading newspaper. There’s really not much subtext to it.

    That’s what I’m saying. The context being that Apple and its glamorous products make a better story than the endemic abuses in the production of a domestic commodity foodstuff.

    Although: I find it hard to see the 2002 Supreme Court decision that negated the human rights of undocumented workers as anything other than racist.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18991 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to WH,

    It’s been ten years since US journalist Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation, the book that moved the plight of US meat packers into the public’s consciousness.

    And yet, according to Human Rights Watch, nothing has changed. Isn't that a story?

    I haven't been to the US for a while, but I've avoided eating chicken there since I read a Harper's story (predating Schlosser's book) on the plane over one time.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18991 posts Report Reply

  • Heather from Auckland, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    Interesting piece. Bits I liked:

    about 230,000 of whom produce products for Apple, the others assembling for Dell, HP, just about every electronics company in fact

    Exactly. If you’re gonna do a boycott you might as well do it properly and give up all your gadgets. Back to pen and paper and licking the back of stamps.

    As I understand it, Apple is signficantly worse than Dell, HP etc. I base that on this report [pdf] by Chinese NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs.

    They looked at both the openness of these Western IT companies to investigation and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations by their suppliers. Their investigation found that Apple was the most secretive and had the worst records on both environmental violations and worker safety of all the companies examined.

    Incidentally, in this context, “environmental” violations can be just as harmful to human health as their worker safety violations – it’s just that in that case they are causing the injury and even death of people who don’t even have the kind of good jobs you can get at Foxconn. It’s too long for a comment here, but I put a story from their report up at my own blog a while back. It’s about a group of peasant farmers who were pleading with the researchers to help them as their people are dying from drinking poisoned water.

    I’m excited that Apple has published a list of their suppliers, as it’ll make it easier for such Chinese (and foreign) NGOs to hold Apple to account. I feel like change is finally in the wind, and that hopefully soon there will be better options available to these people.

    Auckland • Since Jul 2010 • 5 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    By the way, it can be argued that many news organisations are institutionally biassed to some extent (although it is important to note that this may not be the product of any conscious decision to mislead or distort). The mechanism for this is the focus on “news value” or perceived interest of a story to readers. One component of “news value” is the idea of “consonance” – that readers prefer stories that confirm their existing prejudices and expectations about how the world works. There is considerable scope for this aspect of “news value” to be applied somewhat cynically when assessing whether or not to run a story, or choosing an angle for the story, and so news organisations run the risk of exaggerating rather than challenging existing prejudice. As one specific example, usually the stories chosen for publication about China in Japan play up crime, fraud, or pollution. (Also: stories published about crimes within Japan often feature “foreigners”, often Chinese, even though the huge majority of crimes committed in Japan are by Japanese nationals.) The result is not necessarily institutionally racist per se, but it may often play out as, at least, institutionally xenophobic.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 921 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I haven’t been to the US for a while, but I’ve avoided eating chicken there since I read a Harper’s story (predating Schlosser’s book) on the plane over one time.

    Our local Whole Foods (a store I patronise only when I really need something out of the bulk section, because the woo gives me hives) has its meat organised in sections from worst to best ethical production. All the chicken - every bit - is in section 1, the worst. All the (NZ) lamb is at the other end. I presume they also take worker conditions into account, although it's Whole Foods, so it's probably a generous assumption.

    I buy chicken and pork because, basically, when you live here full-time meat-eating is a tradeoff between ethics, expense, and relative healthiness. If we ate purely based on ethics, financial constraints would make us be vegetarians or eat only beef and fish, and not very much of it. And day-to-day, that's not a sacrifice I'm really prepared to make.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Heather from Auckland,

    My point was that it's not Apple, Dell, HP, etc that do the manufacturing, but Foxconn and similar companies. It's Foxconn and its ilk that do the abusing of workers and the environment. Boycotting Apple might hurt Foxconn a little bit, but it still has plenty of income from the other companies looking to get gadgets built.

    Beijing • Since Jan 2007 • 2157 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Campbell,

    This would be the same Whole Foods that drove its unions out, and fires people who try and organise right?

    Dunedin • Since Nov 2006 • 2179 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Our local Whole Foods (a store I patronise only when I really need something out of the bulk section, because the woo gives me hives) has its meat organised in sections from worst to best ethical production.

    Wow, so customers quite literally line up in order of who gives a shit about ethics? Interesting concept, creating an actual physical segregation of customer political/ethical alignments. I can imagine them eyeballing each other.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8598 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    Wow, so customers quite literally line up in order of who gives a shit about ethics? Interesting concept, creating an actual physical segregation of customer political/ethical alignments. I can imagine them eyeballing each other.

    Well, like I said, all the chicken is in the "worst" section, and all the pork in the second-worst, with a mix of beef and lamb through the other three - and it's a butchers' counter, not a packaged-meat fridge, so I don't think where you stand determines which end you're buying from necessarily. But it definitely encourages publicising your priorities. (I'd say "budget", but Whole Foods is pricey to start with, so that pretty much determines the whole clientele.)

    This would be the same Whole Foods that drove its unions out, and fires people who try and organise right?

    Not au fait with the details, but this would not surprise me in the least. That sort of practice is standard American big retail stuff, and they're a big American retailer. That said, I'm also becoming more convinced that American unionism has some problems of its own. In a lot of ways it's a very, very different set-up to the Kiwi type I've experienced - not that I'm old enough to remember a strongly unionised NZ.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Heather from Auckland,

    As I understand it, Apple is signficantly worse than Dell, HP etc. I base that on this report [pdf] by Chinese NGO the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs.

    They looked at both the openness of these Western IT companies to investigation and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations by their suppliers. Their investigation found that Apple was the most secretive and had the worst records on both environmental violations and worker safety of all the companies examined.

    Without downplaying the serious pollution problems identified at the factories, it seems to have only looked at Apple's suppliers, and effectively regarded Foxconn, Wintek etc as suppliers only to Apple, when they're clearly not.

    Where I think they do have a point is the part about disclosure. As I noted in the original post, supply-chain secrecy has been part of Apple's competitive business model. If they can't find a way past that, they'll have to be forced to by measures like the California law Paul Campbell mentions above.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18991 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Poor chickens. They get the shit end of the industrial stick all right. Between mammals which make us humans feel stink when they suffer, and fish, who at least mostly get to be free for their entire lives, barring the minute or two when they get crushed and suffocated to death in nets. Free range is some compromise, I guess.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8598 posts Report Reply

  • Simon Grigg, in reply to linger,

    As one specific example, usually the stories chosen for publication about China in Japan play up crime, fraud, or pollution.

    It's fascinating to see shows on Chinese channels playing up the horrific conditions in US jails and the lack of access to heathcare for so many workers in the US. I saw both in Guangzhou a couple of years back.

    I guess selective reinforcement of stereotypes and gross generalisations about what are both inconceivably massive nations goes both ways.

    As I think Chris has repeatedly, and somewhat bravely given the way the nation is portrayed westwards, tried to point out upthread it really isn't that simple (an almost offensively huge understatement in itself).

    You'd be forgiven for thinking, reading the MSM (and even a couple of comments here too) that it is though.

    Just another klong... • Since Nov 2006 • 3208 posts Report Reply

  • DeepRed,

    And closer to home, there's just been accusations of migrant slave labour practices. The complainants' lawyer is, of all people, Max Whitehead, a one-time ACT candidate who's never been a fan of unions. Strange bedfellows indeed.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 4365 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to BenWilson,

    This trap is the idea that the only thing humans do that is of any value is work for money, and they must therefore be compelled to work by being deprived of the ability to survive if they don’t work for money.

    Well, Some people just don't want to work, lazy...

    In 1797, the London Missionary Society put its first missionaries on the shores of Tahiti. Fourteen years later they had not made one convert, even though the happy Tahitians provided them with servants galore, built their houses and fed them.
    The attempt to make the Tahitians into service growers of sugar cane failed and the good Christian Mr. Orsmond, deciding that “a bountiful nature diminishes men’s natural desire to work,” had all the breadfruit trees cut down. Such practices, as well as diseases (brought from outside), such as syphilis, tuberculosis and smallpox reduced the original population (estimated by Cook at 200,000) to 6,000 after thirty years of missionary rule.

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4931 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Steve Barnes,

    And Tahitians remember Orsmond's atrocity to this day...I've been researching an article about Taputapuatea and found in the relevant notebook that "one Ormond -(sic)- a missionary, ordered all the breadfruit trees chopped down" - I had just finished my first piece of breadfruit, cooked in the traditional way, and our host, a very traditional Raiatean, casually dropped this info into our conversation...

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    Poor chickens. They get the shit end of the industrial stick all right.

    and everything tastes like them

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16794 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    Ah, missionaries. I knew a group out in Taiyuan that required their members to do two years of language study in country before beginning work, and they worked closely with the local legal church and government to provide things like English teaching and medical care. They had a doctor working in a hospital in central Taiyuan and ran a clinic in a village on the outskirts of the city. They knew and respected the local language(s), culture, customs and laws.

    On the other hand, there's still plenty running around with that lazy assumption that their culture is Christianity, casually destroying cultures and lifestyles, just like old Orsmond. Fortunately China's too big and stubborn to suddenly drop everything and change just cos some 20-something American fresh out of Bible college (which is who they mostly seem to be) tells them to. I was talking to a friend about this just last night, and he said he's seen them in action in smaller, more vulnerable places, with far worse results.

    Beijing • Since Jan 2007 • 2157 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    One more for the 'closer to home' basket. This case is just bizarre.

    Beijing • Since Jan 2007 • 2157 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    And yet, according to Human Rights Watch, nothing has changed. Isn’t that a story?

    That doesn't mean US journalism ignores domestic human rights issues. Fast Food Nation spent two years on the The New York Times bestsellers list. The New York Times is one of the good guys. I don't what I would do if I had to read the New Zealand Herald every day.

    Having thought about it, though, I agree that it's hard not to notice the tendency of the American media to portray Chinese industry in an unflattering light. I know your heart is in the right place, Brown.

    Still, every country has it's problems. I remember one Holmes poll that found 85% support for Howard's treatment of the Tampa refugees. Mr Holmes was disgusted with the result. Some people are just suspicious of undocumented workers I suppose.

    I haven’t been to the US for a while, but I’ve avoided eating chicken there since I read a Harper’s story (predating Schlosser’s book) on the plane over one time.

    Yeah. I feel badly about this. I have always thought of myself as an enthusiastic carnivore but the idea that something had to live in suffering, and then die, for my meal weighs on me more and more. I've cut down, and am considering quitting entirely.

    Since Nov 2006 • 605 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    I suppose I just think you're being a bit uncharitable. The first point is that the business practices of American companies is a legitimate American priority.

    The second is that the American concern about China is drawn at least in part from its own fear of decline. You've alluded to the substantial inequality in the US, and pointed out that some people there live hard lives. The US/China story feeds into a broader narrative of economic insecurity and I think you should acknowledge that. Some Americans who have lost jobs to Chinese outsourcing will never work again.

    Since Nov 2006 • 605 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to WH,

    The US/China story feeds into a broader narrative of economic insecurity and I think you should acknowledge that. Some Americans who have lost jobs to Chinese outsourcing will never work again.

    But it also feeds into a strong American narrative that seeks to frame the current unemployment rates in the US as something done to the US by China - witness the frequent references to a "trade war" - without considering the internal decisions that have contributed to it. For instance, a very significant number of jobs lost in this latest recession have been lost in the name of government austerity. I believe it's about half a percentage point worth of unemployment. That's huge. Or witness the current situation in Alabama - such a shortage of agricultural workers, since the new laws regarding undocumented workers came into effect, that the economy is being affected.

    Obviously the question of manufacturing practices in China is important - that's why it's getting attention. But it's not okay for it to get attention at the expense of internal American problems, and it's very easy for that to happen. Also, as long as it's framed as "those people getting our jobs" it's not going to be solved, because China's advantages in that regard (US-below-poverty-level wages, enormous working-age population, poor environmental regulation) can't - and indeed shouldn't - be overcome by trying to emulate them.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    Also, as long as it's framed as "those people getting our jobs" it's not going to be solved, because China's advantages in that regard (US-below-poverty-level wages, enormous working-age population, poor environmental regulation) can't - and indeed shouldn't - be overcome by trying to emulate them.

    That was what I was getting at above in my point about the profoundest mistake all around is to place the value of working above all other virtues. That means that we get into the mode of thinking that it's all about trying to maintain high levels of employment, and avoids/ignores the point that the entire purpose of industry is to create enough things, and if there are enough things, we don't have to work so much. The natural tendency of industrialization is for human unemployment, and it's only our own preconceptions about work that mean we have to treat that as a bad thing.

    A call for full employment is always a call for a trade war, and trade wars lead to real wars. These wars are at all levels, from class war to regional fighting to international war, right down to war within the family units, where partners are set against each other over whether the other one is doing enough to "deserve" things.

    There is a perfectly viable utopian vision that has most of the nation unemployed in an economic sense, living perfectly comfortable lives, if they so choose. Work would still be available for anyone who wanted to do it, giving them more things, to do with as they like. The "unemployed" would still be doing things, of course. People will still raise children, still fix up things that break, or spend endless hours on their hobbies. They could set up businesses, and many would - most people who do something with joy and passion conceive eventually that the talents that they have developed in it could work for them more than just for personal interest. Musicians would play, artists would create, architects would design. Lots of people would throw themselves into public works just because they believe in the value of the public work, rather as the Open Source people do, or people who become interested in politics. Or the contributors on this very website, some of whom feel their writings are a public service, of some value, even if small.

    This vision is not a hell-on-earth with everyone moaning that they can't get a job, but rather a world where people do the jobs they want to because they are freed to a large extent from the jobs they must do. And people admire industry as a public work in itself, the factory is not a threat, it is a good churning out things that we can have. Businesses would probably compete, but it would be the fierce competition of people who want to make fortunes, rather than desperate competition of people who can't survive, and the consumer would vote with their dollars for the best. It is a world that's mostly carrots and very few sticks. Sticks would only be needed to prevent actual crime, and crime would be considerably less attractive than just picking up the carrots one needs.

    I'm not saying how this utopia could be reached (although I believe I know the answer to that), I'm merely saying that it's not the terrifying end result that our protestant work ethic would suggest it is, a degenerate world of poverty and misery. That degenerate world already exists, and it results from that work ethic writ large, and enforced on people, needlessly so, with inverted results - the hardest workers are often the worst compensated, and the people who make nothing at all, who did nothing more than loan people money they didn't even have themselves, are the richest and most powerful people on the planet. The work is directed into highly trivial activities to create vast excesses of things that aren't really needed by most people (but are very much desired by people who want for nothing), and the things that really are needed, like food, water, shelter and heat, become more and more expensive every day, despite endless industrial capacity to reverse this.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8598 posts Report Reply

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