I wrote this piece on my MacBook Air and I proofread it on my iPad, devices which are dear to me and which power much of my work and recreation. Like many happy Apple customers, though, I’ve been forced to consider the very unhappy conditions under which these gadgets – and others like them – are produced. How should those of us who love and depend upon our electronics feel about the suffering of the factory workers who are laboring and even dying for us?
While information about worker suicides and unsafe conditions has been making the rounds for some time, the latest and loudest critique began with a recent stirring piece in the New York Times on the operations of Foxconn, the manufacturing partner that operates electronics factories in China. Foxconn seemingly holds the health and safety of workers in outright contempt:
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.
In addition, there have been numerous reports of injuries arising from the use of harmful chemicals and from explosions in some of the factories. And, of course, there have been several instances of worker suicides, which have rightfully drawn a great deal of attention.
On the one hand, these terrible conditions gnaw at us because we know it’s our demand for high-tech products at low prices that drives corporations to pay workers less and spend less on safety, not to mention move their manufacturing into countries with little to no regulation. On the other hand, workers freely choose to take these jobs; in fact, Foxconn regularly turns away fully informed job seekers since the pay and the conditions they offer are better than many other options available, particularly for young rural workers. Without the demand and thus the factories, many of the people who are being exploited would be struggling to feed their families and would end up exploited in some other way. Indeed, this is the position on sweatshops taken by Nicholas Kristof and by Paul Krugman.
With those two poles of the debate in mind, I still feel comfortable asserting that the exploitation of poor workers is a moral wrong. We ought to prevent others from exploiting disadvantaged people. In order to end the exploitation, neither market forces nor an organized boycott will suffice. We need government regulation requiring sufficient wages and safe conditions. Regulation will almost surely lead to higher prices, but it’s time we priced human dignity into the feature checklists of our immorally inexpensive electronics.