Is It Apple’s China Problem or China’s Apple Problem?

By now I’m sure everyone has heard at least something about Apple’s use of Chinese labor at Foxconn. The story has been around for years, but it’s blown up in recent days, stemming from a New York Times article that comes down pretty harshly on Apple’s apparent inaction. It was followed up with another story only days later. Then Tim Cook sent out an employee email that sounded both hurt and indignant. He touted Apple’s efforts to audit suppliers and make sure everyone was held to the highest standards. Such a nugget is news fodder, so it’s no wonder that numerous blogs and news outlets took up the story. Now Tim Worstall at Forbes takes the labor critics to task for suggesting that an Apple boycott would solve technology’s cheap labor problem. This is a tough topic, but it seems obvious to me that blaming any one (admittedly very large) company for a whole country’s institutionalized workforce regulations is a bit out of touch with reality.

The argument breaks down into two factions: the people that feel that Apple, with its record profits, can afford to treat its workers better and maybe even move back to the U.S. The other side patiently explains that modern business isn’t that simple and China is probably the only place where technology could be manufactured on a large scale. At any rate, this is hardly an Apple-specific issue, since Foxconn manufactures almost every consumer electronic on the market.

The economic facts clearly rest with the “China is a poor country, so China’s workers are impoverished and there’s nothing we can do about it” line of reasoning, but part of me keeps rebelling against such a pessimistic viewpoint. Apple should be better than this. China should be better than this. People should be better than this.

Of course the reality is that Apple wants to make products, China wants to keep its rich customers and centralized regime, and everyone wants money. Chinese workers are probably better off in factories than rice paddies. They’re committing suicide at rates far lower than the national average. But they’re still threatening to kill themselves for better wages. No matter what economists say, it’s tough to know that people are living like this and we’re helping (in even a very small way) to perpetuate the situation. Some problems simply can’t be solved rationally without some emotion getting in the way, and this is one of them.

– image from Cult of Mac.

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