Throughout the run of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, we’ve been having lots of fun here at Woolly playing with the idea of Apple obsessions through our blog and social media outlets. However, the show also has a serious side in that it tells Mike Daisey’s story of traveling to the Foxconn Factory in Shenzhen, China and his shock in seeing the working conditions there and talking to children as young as 12 years old who work at the factory. I recently stayed for a post-show discussion in which one of the audience members brought up the point that many consumers in this country are aware of child labor and unsafe working conditions in other industries, such as the garment and coffee industries, but that we must now apply these principles to all products we consume, such as electronics. I thought this was an interesting thought, and started to do some research on sweatshops and organizations that try to fight for labor reform.
Last year, when it was reported that there were at least 10 suicides at Foxconn (around the time that Mike was there, and he witnessed the suicide nets that they put up), Steve Jobs’ response was, “We’re all over this. Foxconn is not a sweatshop.” Yet, when you look at how sweatshops are described, that response is questionable. According to the US Department of Labor, a sweatshop is “any factory that violates more than one of the fundamental US labor laws, which include paying a minimum wage and keeping a time card, paying overtime, and paying on time.” Additional groups include: “any factory that does not respect workers’ right to organize an independent union is a sweatshop, as well as any factory that does not pay its workers a living wage—that is, a wage that can support the basic needs of a small family.”
Labor rights activists blame globalization for the proliferation of sweatshops, heightened by trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free-Trade Agreement) which within ten years of its implementation in 1994 eliminated all US-Mexico tariffs except for a few exceptions. Most US-Canada trade is tariff-free as well. Critics say that NAFTA gave investors new abilities to move their production factories overseas to developing nations where wages were cheaper, which in turn would produce a less-expensive product and increase their profit-margins. This creates a vicious cycle, as any country that raises its wages or enforces its workers’ rights is, “pricing itself out of the market.”
According to the National Labor Committee, a worker in El Salvador earns about 24 cents for each NBA jersey she makes, which then sells for $140 in the US. A Global Exchange investigation revealed that workers in Mexico producing jeans for the Gap earn as little as 28 cents an hour. In poorer countries such as Haiti and Nicaragua, the wages are even lower. Often these workers are paid not hourly, but by the number of garments they make, which can end up translating to making more than one piece of clothing every minute. Some workers tell that they can’t even go to the bathroom or drink water for the whole day. Workers in these factories in various countries say they would need to earn wages two to three times higher to support their families.
I perused many of these human rights advocacy groups’ websites, and found lots of similar stories about child labor and poor working conditions in the shoes, clothing, coffee, chocolate, and toy industries. However, not one of these websites mentioned anything about the electronics factories in China. I found this pretty surprising- Foxconn has been in the news recently (WIRED, Bloomberg Business Week, etc.) why wouldn’t these groups be advocating for reform in the electronics factories as well? Is it because the watchdogs of the clothing industry aren’t also watching the electronics industry? Is it because the electronics industry is newer relative to the garment industry?
It’s not as if no one has taken notice. I looked up the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which was created “to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China.” The commission submits an annual report to the President and to Congress, so I decided to read through the 2010 report to see what they found. The report is over 300 pages long, and no I did not read the whole thing but I’ll give you the Cliffnotes version of their major findings related to working conditions:
“Workers in China still are not guaranteed, either by law or in practice, full worker rights in accordance with international standards, including the right to organize into independent unions. The ACFTU, the official union under the direction of the [Communist] Party, is the only legal trade union organization in China. All lower level unions must be affiliated with the ACFTU and must align with its overarching political concerns of maintaining ‘social stability’ and economic growth.”
“In the past, Chinese officials often argued that it was necessary to carve out exceptions and waivers to the application of international norms to China. They sought to make the case that, in practice, China deserved to be treated as an exception, due, for instance, to its status as a developing country. Now, however, official statements increasingly tend to declare the Chinese government’s compliance with international norms, even in the face of documented noncompliance.”
“Growing concern on the part of local governments to maintain economic growth and employment continued to prompt some localities to respond to labor laws that took effect in 2008 with local opinions and regulations of their own that weakened some employee-friendly aspects of these laws. Interpretation of these laws across localities has not been consistent, leading to their ‘regionalization’ and ‘loopholization.’”
“Enforcement of China’s Labor Contract Law continued to be uneven or selective. There have been reports of employers concluding multiple contracts per worker in order to avoid payment of overtime; replacing older workers with younger workers to avoid longer-term contracts; using contract expiration as a method for laying off formal employees during economic slowdowns; and refusing to hire employees who insist on exercising their right to conclude a labor contract. Studies by Chinese researchers suggest that substantial numbers of Chinese workers report that their actual work hours are different from the hours specified in their labor contracts.”
“The Chinese government’s complicated and time-consuming work-related injury compensation procedure continued to be a major problem for China’s injured workers. Workers more generally also continued to face persistent occupational safety issues.”
The commission made various recommendations for the US, such as supporting programs that promote legal reform and make sure China’s labor laws follow internationally recognized standards, facilitating site-visits with US labor groups, etc.
But why is it that little has been done so far? Is it because we have too many problems of our own right now to worry about a country thousands of miles away, even if our own economic interests are involved? Or is it that we don’t want to give up our high tech toys, or think about the possibility of paying a higher price for them? What do you think? Has this show inspired you to take action?
~ Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager