Hard News by Russell Brown

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

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  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    One of the interesting bits that jumped out at me from the Times article was the excerpt on industrial clustering:

    “The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 901 posts Report Reply

  • Tim Croft,

    The January 6 episode of This American Life, "Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory," (#454) is well worth listening to as a compliment to the NY Times article(s).

    Tuscaloosa • Since May 2008 • 19 posts Report Reply

  • barnaclebarnes,

    Great post Russell. I don't have it handy right now but I remember reading about how Mc Donalds changed the whole animal slaughtering business in the US to meet certain standards, something the government had not been able to achieve.

    Change will come from the companies like Apple and the others who use those factories demanding higher standards. What we should be questioning is a) Will they go far enough? and b) On what time frame?

    The only other way to stop it is for everybody to stop buying any modern equipment manufactured in China and that simply won't happen.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 88 posts Report Reply

  • kiwicmc,

    IN another NYT article a few days ago there was this gem of a quote from a former Apple executive when talking about a screen redesign change that occurred late in the iPhone manufacturing process.

    A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

    “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html?pagewanted=all

    Doesn't that just seem a little off to you. The glee evident in the fact that people can be made to work like that?

    The John Stewart piece is amusing as well..

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-16-2012/fear-factory

    "Siri informs Stewart that were Foxconn to implement humane conditions, his iPod would cost 23 percent more.

    Stewart is aghast: "Wow! I would expect if we were working people to death, we'd be getting like 30 to 35 percent savings," he joked."

    Sydney, Australia • Since May 2008 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • DexterX,

    Shouldn't that be titled getting to the bottom of the barrel

    http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-child-labor-2012-1

    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-shocking-conditions-inside-chinas-brutal-foxconn-factory-2010-5

    They're as entitled to those aspirations as much as any American worker is.

    On a tangent, a wider aspect to workers aspiration is that with NZ having a freetrade agreement with China what "NZ" is wanting is push/pull parity between NZ wages and wages in China so that the wage rates eventually overtime equalise as on recognised and constant input.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1194 posts Report Reply

  • andrew r,

    Gee Foxconn employees - a job there, or dire poverty. Awesome choice. Bleak. Who the fk would want a job in that dump. As to being a meat processing wker in the USA ...sad very very sad.Clearly the country that is, with haste, giving up on it's poor.

    auckland • Since May 2007 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to andrew r,

    Gee Foxconn employees – a job there, or dire poverty. Awesome choice. Bleak. Who the fk would want a job in that dump.

    Loads of people, and understandably so. Not every job at Foxconn is on an assembly line. The company provides training and education, conducts R&D, subsidises offsite housing and provides a career path for many thousands of people.

    You don't want it to go out of existence. You want to be able to hold it to its public commitments to the welfare of the workers at the bottom of the ladder.

    As to being a meat processing wker in the USA …sad very very sad.Clearly the country that is, with haste, giving up on it’s poor.

    It's genuinely hideous. The people who work in those plants seem to have roughly the status of the meat they're handling. In some ways, it's far, far worse than the Chinese electronics industry.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to DexterX,

    Shouldn’t that be titled getting to the bottom of the barrel

    http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-child-labor-2012-1

    To be fair, underage labour is the front where Apple has been most willing to take strong action where it finds breaches.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • andrew r, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Loads of people, and understandably so. Not every job at Foxconn is on an assembly line.

    And those that are on the assembly line? They sound particularly delightful. I dunno, the things that we seem to find acceptable from a far. Hmmm.

    auckland • Since May 2007 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • John Morrison,

    Great post Russell. Thanks for the research and time because it was very enlightening.

    Cromwell • Since Nov 2006 • 77 posts Report Reply

  • Julian Melville,

    Just to echo what Tim said above, a listen to "Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory" is definitely worthwile.

    Auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 184 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to DexterX,

    The good thing about that Business Insider story is that it's based on a report from a leading Chinese newspaper, which indicates that conditions are being debated within China. And it makes it clear that even some relatively small changes would substantially improve the welfare of workers there.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to andrew r,

    And those that are on the assembly line? They sound particularly delightful. I dunno, the things that we seem to find acceptable from a far. Hmmm.

    Every gadget you own involves an assembly line. And until robots get better that will continue to be the case. The key is to enforce standards of welfare.

    As the Times story notes, there are any number of small things that can be done – rotating shifts so that people don’t get debilitating repetitive strain injuries from constantly performing the same actions seems a really obvious and achievable one.

    And as the Southern Weekly's reporter put it: "The workers definitely need beer, romance, and slightly higher pay. To put it simply, just make them happy."

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    Shouldn’t that be titled getting to the bottom of the barrel

    Or, perhaps, "Comparing apples with apples" (or something like that).

    I don't know about all this. At least, I don't find the argument that there are even worse jobs in the world tremendously convincing. This report from the South China Morning Post (11 Oct., 2010) sez:

    Technology giant Foxconn has been described as a labour camp that severely violates China's labour laws and abuses workers physically and mentally, in a research report jointly produced by 20 universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

    The 83-page report draws on interviews with more than 1,800 workers from 12 Foxconn-owned factories in nine mainland cities. It found fresh evidence that the Taiwanese giant forces assembly-line employees to work double or triple the legal limit on overtime. It describes a Spartan management style, extensive employment of teenage students, and failure to report a considerable number of industrial injuries for which workers were unable to receive statutory compensation.

    It found that at least 17 Foxconn workers had attempted to commit suicide since January - of whom 13 died - rather than the 14 suicide attempts widely reported by the Hong Kong media.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    China is an industrialising nation. New Zealanders probably don't have the same idea of what that means as Europeans or Americans, because New Zealand never industrialised; we were always industrial. But these stories out of China are not very different from the industrialising American West, when Southern blacks moved en masse to Detroit and Chicago, or the industrialising of Europe, when (for example) large parts of the Irish peasantry moved to Liverpool and Glasgow.

    Many of those jobs were awful. But on the other hand, so's being a peasant.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1362 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to 3410,

    I don’t know about all this. At least, I don’t find the argument that there are even worse jobs in the world tremendously convincing.

    That wasn't really my point though. It was more that the West should also look to itself.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • Sue,

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 477 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Mason,

    It is the LABOUR that is cheap. The future will be more and more chinese middle class wanting more and higher wages, less wokring hours and .......recreation time. Shock horror. And then, the price will have to go up.

    For a prime example look no further than the US auto industry. Damn near collapsed with Japanese car imports. But once automation came in the US became quite attractive to even the Japanese to build cars there again. Why? Japanese labour became expensive.

    I am damn sure that when - not if - automated assembly becomes the norm on these consumablee assembly lines we will see a marked change to the source of our "can't-be-without-Star-Trek-salt-shakers."

    Upper Hutt • Since Jun 2007 • 1496 posts Report Reply

  • Ross Mason,

    BTW. Nokia began losing market when they did not respond to personal communicators encroaching into the internet. Rather than the cost of production.

    They missed a market. And it is a disruptive one.

    Upper Hutt • Since Jun 2007 • 1496 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    What interests me is what will happen when growth stops?

    The "customer" section of the world is already spending as much on toys as they ever will, and they're getting poorer. So how can companies like Foxconn continue to grow - and normally, growth doesn't just slow down nicely, it reverses.

    Once all these people start being laid off and sent back to the farm, what will they do? They don't have any employment protection, they don't have the right to stay in the cities without jobs and they don't have the outlet of voteocracy to vent their frustration by voting the other team in.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4459 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Curtis,

    The making of the iphones is unsustainable in the medium term. Apple will be in the same position as Blackberry soon enough, but they have learnt from Kodaks ( early) success. Its the money in the apps that will provide the income to keep them going and Foxconn will have to move on to something else.
    Then again a chip fab plant only has a life of 5-8 years before its all junked. Who was it relying on electronics ( and financial services) for economic growth ..... Ireland

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 221 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Once all these people start being laid off and sent back to the farm, what will they do? They don’t have any employment protection, they don’t have the right to stay in the cities without jobs and they don’t have the outlet of voteocracy to vent their frustration by voting the other team in.

    Well, there’s always the Mass Group Incident. And the strike. (The making of the Chinese working class, and all that.) And while yeah, they don’t have residence permits, the notion of deporting millions of people is pretty ludicrous.

    And why should growth stop? There’s a massive emerging Asian middle class that will want these things.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1362 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Ross Mason,

    It is the LABOUR that is cheap. The future will be more and more chinese middle class wanting more and higher wages, less wokring hours and …….recreation time. Shock horror. And then, the price will have to go up

    Yep, but there's nothing wrong with moving that process along a bit quicker.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18888 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz, in reply to Ross Mason,

    Nokia began losing market when they did not respond to personal communicators encroaching into the internet

    They were listening to the mobile operators, who only saw voice call revenue and didn’t care for the anarchic world of apps and software. (Remember Telecom pushing 3G as a vehicle for video calling and press-to-talk – what happened to that?)

    (And for mobile opcos, smartphones have brought mostly pain. Voice and SMS revenues are declining, and they aren’t making enough on data to offset this).

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4459 posts Report Reply

  • Tom Beard, in reply to andrew r,

    And those that are on the assembly line? They sound particularly delightful. I dunno, the things that we seem to find acceptable from a far. Hmmm.

    Would the assembly lines be appreciably more delightful to work on if they were in Wiri or Detroit? Most of us here are privileged enough that we've had plenty of career options beyond being cogs in the Fordist machine, so that being trapped in such a tedious job would seem degrading and mind-numbing. But for most of the people making most of our stuff, that has been a reality since well before the Chinese boom.

    I'm still a stickler for buying clothes and shoes that are made either locally or in Europe, but I have to admit that it's as much a sign of snobbery on my part as it is a concern for the environment or labour standards. There is something nice about knowing exactly where your purchases are coming from, and even being able to talk to the people who make them, and for people with good disposable income in New Zealand that's still an option. Being able to do the same with someone building a phone or computer from raw materials? Not so much.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1039 posts Report Reply

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