Apple hit by boycott call over worker abuses in China

Again from The Guardian – Apple hit by boycott call over worker abuses in China

http://gu.com/p/354gq

The problems with Foxconn have been appalling. The audit no doubt does make for grim reading. I agree that people should take an interest in where the products they buy come from and buy responsibly. The buck stops with the consumer. If there is no demand, there will be no factory.

But…

This is not just a problem with Apple products. Foxconn produces goods for many brands, including the Samsung I am currently tapping away at. Deaths and injuries at Foxconn plants have received a lot of attention in Western media. With the audits they have published, it will be even easier to point fingers at Apple, but come off it, this is a huge problem for almost any company doing business in China or any other place where labour is cheap but regulations do little to protect workers. Not just in the production of electronic equipment either, shoes, clothes, bags, toys… you name it. Our lifestyle creates the demand that results in this kind of scandal.

Companies like Apple no doubt have regulations for how their workers are to be treated on the ground, but anybody who has worked or done business in China ought to know there is often a huge difference between what the contract says and what the Chinese partner does on the ground. Many cut costs every way they can in order to increase their profits – shift hours, dormitory space (cram workers in and you save costs in electricity and heating – the exact same thing happens on university campuses), food. Even public construction works are subject to this. About 5 years ago I remember a huge bridge that was being constructed in Hunan fell down because they cut costs in labour and materials. And then there was that new building in Shanghai a few years ago that clean toppled over for much the same reason. In order to make more money, companies cut costs and do not follow designs, let alone government standards of practice.

Companies like Apple may have rules. The government has laws. Workers may have contracts. The fact is, these are often not followed. Trying to find a job in China is extremely difficult. If you kick up a fuss to get what is stated in your contract, you will lose your job because for every person who won’t work under poor conditions, there are plenty of others who will. It is much harder to be picky when you are trying to keep your head above water financially.

Even for those who are educated and knowledgeable enough about their rights, it is pretty hard to get them out of Chinese bureaucracy, particularly when you are poor and your boss is wealthy and well-connected enough to smooth the matter over with local government officials and police. Every day in the Chinese media there are reports of a crackdown on corruption. I daresay the situation has improved a lot on what it was but it still has a long way to go because there is an awful lot of corruption to chase.

Every week in Chinese newspapers there are articles about people dying because business people do not follow the law and think making a fast buck is more important than the health, safety and lives of ordinary people. Mining accidents happen every year and each time the fatalities are often over a hundred. Toxic vaccines, gutter oil, melamine in dairy products, lead poisoning… you name it.

This kind of abuse already occurs. The crappy thing is companies like Apple must either be completely naive or complicit to go into China and think a piddly little contract is going to guarantee the conditions of the factory workers who make their products. It won’t unless they are on the ground policing the plants themselves.

Our demand for these products and our lack of concern (or even curiosity) about how they are produced and not holding local producers accountable for the welfare of their workers leads to this outcome. The question is: do we care enough to force a change?

As for boycotting Apple, why just Apple? Half the products in our houses nowadays are made in China in other factories where conditions may not be any better and could actually be worse! And there is no need to single out China. I highly doubt other countries which are used for cheap labour are any different. I only write about China because it is where I lived. The Foxconn controversy no doubt came to light because it was about both Apple and China, but the issues involved are far more wide-reaching.

Foxconn is but the tip of the iceberg.

For excellent research on the lives of female factory workers in Guangdong, I recommend a book called Factory Girls by Leslie Chang. It is brilliant.

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