Exploiting Others

May 29th, 2010 by Martin

There is a growing list of reports of exploitation of workers in chinese fabs that produce our beloved gadgets from Apple. This appears to be a common strategy in the industry since there are other reports about producers of sport equipment like Nike that have outsourced their production to infamous sweatshops and benefit from child labor. What all of these cases have in common is that each of these major companies has some kind of code of conduct which should prevent ugly things from happening. After all, we want clean gadgets and gadgets which were built by happy workers.
However, the reality is obviously that we have gadgets which were created under inhuman circumstances; people working 12 hours with no break, 6 days a week and for a minimum wage and people killing themselves. Incidents that reportedly happened at FOXCONN are the pars pro toto for this kind of exploitation. There the management drew up a contract for workers which included a non-suicide clause – something that people living in the western world find impossible to believe. After all, if you want to kill yourself, will a contract prevent this? What do I have to lose if I kill myself? I have to admit that I’m no expert in eastern societies, and maybe this can be explained by the way societies in the east function. Still, this contract might have an even more cynical core: if a worker signs such a contract and kills himself, then maybe his family might be liable for the obvious breach of the contract. FOXCONN quickly abandoned this plan when it was made public, but it shows how well these companies think.
If you dig deeper and check the FOXCONN web page, you find a report from 2006 where Apple made an investigation. They found out that not everything followed Apple’s code of conduct, but overall it appeared to be roughly in line with Apple’s requirements. There is one passage that is particularly interesting:

Employees expressed dissatisfaction with some aspects of the workplace. The single largest complaint (approximately 20% of interviewed workers) was the lack of overtime during non-peak periods. The second largest complaint (less than 10%) was the transportation schedule for employees living in off-campus dorms, which they felt was inadequate outside of working hours. Results of the interviews have been shared with management, and will be addressed where appropriate. For example, the transportation schedule is being reviewed for adjustment.

If I understood this correctly, there are some 20% of workers that appear to have too little to work. In the light of recent developments such a statement appears to be “unbelievable” to say the least, and a downright lie. Admittedly, the report is from 2006 and things might have changed. Anyway, recent reports in the media speak a different language.

Now, the obvious question is what should be done about it? Can we change anything? Being an optimist, I’d say yes, we are able to change things. First of all, we should be willing to pay an adequate price for clean hardware, i.e., hardware that was produced by “happy” workers under humane conditions. I’m aware that terms like humane depend on one’s point of view, but I think we can agree that this would be something like working 8 hours a day, being able to talk with your colleagues and having weekends off. The wage should be above the “minimum” and workers should be able to sustain their families. And the price we pay for it? Well, what about paying 10% more for a gadget and having the guaranty that this money goes directly to the workers in the form of bonuses?

I’m aware that people that studied economy will have more than one objection to such a proposal. Things like:

This will destroy our economical growth. This cannot be done, because we need trusted funds to manage the money that is given to the workers. How to set up the administration for such a thing? This would certainly cost millions, or even billions and no shareholder could ever agree to this.

Let me conclude this post with a simple child-like question. So we agree that exploiting others is morally wrong. Why do we do it anyway?

your political ikangai team

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