President Obama asked Steve Jobs about all the jobs lost to China for manufacturing Apple products. Jobs famously told him those jobs would never return to this country. Why? Americans with a sense of decency and morality would never allow the working conditions at China's Foxcom industries. (My opinion of course...Jobs said it was because of all the anti-business regulations Obama foists on corporate victims.)
Current Apple CEO Tim Cook, tells about Job's dissatisfaction with the plastic screen on the original I Phone. Jobs demanded it be replaced with glass. They contacted Foxcom. Managers rousted sleepy workers from their dorms and put them to work. With 12-16 hour shifts, they re-tooled and began making thousands of I Phones with glass screens. No American company, says Cook, has the flexibility and workforce to pull off such an accomplishment. Also, no American company can pay it's workers $1 an hour, keep them on the premises 24 hours a day, separate them from their families, prohibit them from talking to the media or fire them if they complain about harsh working conditions or low pay.
Apple is no better than the people who owned the Triangle Shirt Factory in New York, the chicken processing plants in Georgia or the cotton fields of Alabama. Apple is the latest in a long list of American corporations, NIKE...automakers...and even the Kardashians come to mind....to exploit workers in other countries and drive up profits for themselves. What makes Apple's sins so egregious is their attempt to avoid taking responsibility for their actions knowing Americans care more about having a "cool" tech product than they do about how it was made and by whom.
CNN recently interviewed a Foxcom worker. She described slave-like conditions and pay. She was worn down by the crushingly repetitive boredom and soul-sucking environment she endures and declared she would be fired if anyone found out she was talking to the media. She says the workers are treated like animals. CNN reminded viewers 13 Foxcom workers committed suicide by jumping off their building forcing managers to put up nets to try to reduce the suicide rates. The suicides were the only way they could think of to protest the horrible conditions under which they labored. In response, Apple issued an unctuous press release proclaiming their love and respect for all the workers who assemble their products. Their commitment to the workers does not go as far as mandating better wages, food, living and working conditions, but Apple cares. Apple is not alone in their caring. Workers at a Foxcom plant assembling products for Microsoft mutinied over pay and working conditions. Microsoft insists it too cares about all those who assemble their products.
Can you imagine in your wildest dreams, Americans giving up their I Pads or I Phones because of moral outrage over how the workers who make them are treated? In this nation of tech chic, Americans are far more concerned about buying the latest cutting edge device than they are for Chinese laborers. Apple and Microsoft shareholders would scream bloody murder if prices for their products were raised to reflect higher wages and better conditions for those who make them. Profits before morality at all costs. Maybe a movement to shun or shame owners of Apple products could bring about a change in corporate culture....yeah right!
One of the forces, which drive this scandal, is free trade agreements. NAFTA, GATT and recent agreements with South Korea, Colombia and other nations, allow corporations to chase the cheapest labor dollar wherever it exists. President Clinton promised NAFTA and GATT would contain provisions requiring just pay and conditions for workers and for a process which would allow workers to organize. He lied. It never happened.
Since we know corporations will never, on their own, improve wages and the conditions under which workers operate, they have to be forced to do the right thing. There are two steps which could be taken to improve the situation. First, owners of Apple, Microsoft and other electronic products have to put pressure on the corporations to allow and encourage their sub-contractors to improve conditions even if it drives up the prices of their products. Independent inspectors have to be allowed into all these plants to assess conditions. (Despite Apple's glowing press release, this is a classic example of trust but verify) Second, the American government has to make unionization a part of any free trade agreement and assess trade penalties on products from any nation which balks. Right now, across the globe, union organizers are targets of orchestrated campaigns of assassination and intimidation instituted by nations and corporations bent on remaining attractive to manufacturers by keeping wages and benefits as low as possible and working conditions akin to slavery. Without pressure from America, they will never allow workers to organize.
What's going on in China is not new. Autoworkers, farm workers, Pullman porters, steel workers and coal miners also faced slave wages and life threatening working conditions in this country. It was only when people like Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Caesar Chavez and others came along and organized workers, changed laws and forced the capitalists to raise wages and improve working conditions which finally forced change to occur. Now we have to give Chinese workers the same opportunities.
Ironically, at the same time Chinese workers are fighting for their rights, American workers face Right to Work Less laws proliferating across the country and Americans feel antipathy towards unions. We can see how unions would benefit workers in China or Mexico at the same time as corporations and regressives dismantle them in this nation.
Will Americans give up their latest slick toy in order to show solidarity with the people who make them? Will we demand our government stop the widespread killing and intimidating of organizers internationally? Will Newt Gingrich be the first governor of the 51st state on the moon?