Exporting Poor Work Environments

After a long time of successfully managing to avoid the blog, I eventually clicked this past week when I was sent Fake Steve Jobs’ reaction to the news that an employee of Foxconn, one of Apple’s Chinese ‘manufacturing partners’, committed suicide shortly after reporting a missing iPhone v4 prototype.

We can’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the quality would be about half what we get out of China. […]

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused—what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

You know that, and I know that. Okay? Let’s just be honest here.

It reminds me somewhat of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, specifically where he discusses how “[China and Japan conserve their] own forests by exporting deforestation to other countries, several of which (including Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia) have already reached or are on the road to catastrophic deforestation” (emphasis mine).

Now, are first world countries like the U.S. and those of Western Europe not just exporting poor work environment standards to the second world countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and China (as a consequence of large-scale, inexpensive manufacturing that we no longer can/want to undertake)?



5 responses to “Exporting Poor Work Environments”

  1. I’m not sure I agree with your analogy with deforestation. One deals with renewable assets (renewable with the proper investments and upkeep), while the other deals with work processes and culture.

  2. I’ve always thought that the best trading policy for the US is to push for labor rights and environmental standards for any company that exports to the US. It’s both morally the right thing to do, and a big economic boost to both trading partners.

  3. @James

    Quite right, the analogy between the destruction of what should be a renewable asset and these cultural differences is quite strained, but I was alluding more to the exporting of ‘problems’ in general (cultural, environmental, etc.).

    More than that, I mean that instead of one country tackling a contentious issue and the government then having to force this upon it’s citizens, they simply export the problem by outsourcing the source.

    So first world countries, instead of taking the lead on the issue and fixing their own manufacturing bases, we simply export manufacturing so other countries have to deal with the collateral damage. That is the analogy I was drawing, and I think it is quite general.

  4. @Scott

    I agree fully.

    I guess the problem is an economics one: the ROI for a company pushing for labour rights and environmental standards is very low to start and is extremely intangible. If this is then detrimental to the company’s bottom line the shareholders have a right to sue (like when Henry Ford was sued by his shareholders for raising his workers’ minimum wage to $5 /hour).

    Another consideration, even if this weren’t the case, is that the benefits of improved rights and standards are seen greater at the end of the manufacturing line, in the third world countries. The psychological distance between those deciding company policy and where the problem is greatest is a cause for inaction. If it’ll make no difference to those deciding policy, why change? Especially if it could make life difficult in the short term.

  5. Actually, talking about exporting problems, I can’t remember if Jared Diamond talks about this one in his book:
    The Toronto area exporting its trash to the US: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2006/06/major_toronto_e.php