In response to accusations of unsafe and inhumane working conditions at their massive factory complexes in China, Apple commissioned an independent auditor, the Fair Labor Association, to investigate the situation. Initial reports from the audit have been quite good, in the sense that the horrible stories which leaked out appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule. (In response to the accusations, Foxconn, the main Apple factory manager, also raised its salaries by more than 25 percent.)
ABC’s Nightline was allowed essentially unfettered access to the Foxconn factories, and hasn’t found the circumstances to be anything like what some worried about. The program aired on Tuesday night. The ABC report explains,
We looked hard for the kind of underage and maimed workers we’ve read so much about, but we mostly found people who face their days through soul-crushing boredom and deep fatigue. Some complained of being overworked, others complained of being underworked and almost all said they were underpaid. And when I asked, “What would you change?,” we heard the kind of complaints you might hear in any factory anywhere.
The New York Times comments,
More tellingly, the broadcast showed 3,000 young Chinese workers lining up at the gates for Foxconn’s Monday morning recruiting session.
Now, these workers know about the 2010 Foxconn suicides. They know that the starting salary is $2 an hour (plus benefits, and no payroll taxes). They know they’ll have 12-hour shifts, with two hourlong breaks. They know that workers sleep in a tiny dorm (six or eight to a room) for $17 a month.
And yet here they are, lining up to work! Apparently, even those conditions, so abhorrent to us, are actually better than these workers’ alternatives: backbreaking rural farm work that doesn’t prepare them to move up the work force food chain.
Many observers are shocked at the child labor reported at Foxconn. Not only do these Chinese factories employ a lot of young people — the legal working age is 16 — but from what we saw on the ABC broadcast, all of these employees are young. That’s also what a former Apple executive told me this week: that Foxconn is not a career. You don’t see 30- and 40-year-old heads of households on the assembly lines. The young Chinese see it as “something like a first summer job,” he told me — a way to make some bucks for a few months before heading home, or to get some work experience before moving up.
None of this, of course, is to say that there are not horrific conditions in some Chinese factories, as there surely are. And, of course, though Foxconn did offer full access to interview any workers and see any factories, they could still have put significant effort into presenting the conditions in an appealing light. But still, it should assuage the guilt of some Westerners about the factories which produce our luxury goods, and remind us of one thing: Despite the terrible social dislocations and occasional inhumanity that industrialization and capitalism involve, Chinese workers are making their own choices, and they would clearly rather learn from Apple in industry than Dazhai in agriculture.