Friday, February 3, 2012

The Chinese Jungle

Photo from this site - please don't sue me

There have been a lot of online petitions and public outcry in the West recently over the treatment Chinese factory workers endure. Most of it, thanks to This American Life, The Daily Show and other outlets, has been directed at Apple, whose products are made in China by vendors and suppliers.

My feelings on this: I agree completely with the sentiment, but activists: UR DOIN IT RONG. Putting pressure on Apple might bring about some small improvements but really it's like threatening the Death Star but letting Palpatine and Darth Vader run amok. 

Don't get me wrong: I agree. Factory workers in China are forced to live horrific lives. Excruciatingly long work days, mind-explodingly boring jobs putting together the same small part hundreds of times a day, all day, every day, dormitories that house more to a room than a cash-strapped college dorm (and those in the same room don't even know each other), bosses who regularly treat workers badly (and have been known to treat female workers like sex objects) - it's truly disgusting. It's something nobody should accept or put up with. It's Upton Sinclair for the 21st Century, and we rich folks with iPhones - yes, I am using "rich" to mean comparatively well-off, not 1% rich - aid and abet it by buying the products and often rewarding the lower prices that inhumane labor practices allow by buying more of the products when prices are lower. I'm totally on board with that. It's a massive, evil thing. I have wanted a new smartphone since my old one was stolen, but I haven't bought one not only because I'm trying to be careful with money, but also because the thought of supporting that system sickens me. 

Of course, every time I buy something made in China or really any developing country, I'm still supporting that system - I can't deny that. 

The thing is, Apple isn't doing this. Apple is surely aware of it, and Apple turns a blind eye to it, yes, but Apple isn't doing it themselves. 

Those employees don't work for Apple - they work for Foxconn, or any of the other vendors and suppliers that Apple has approved  (although Foxconn is the biggest). Apple is not Foxconn. Foxconn is not Apple. Sure, Apple aids and abets Foxconn's treatment of workers in China, but they're not the same company. You can't say "Apple needs to change its labor practices" or "Apple's workers" - they're not Apple's workers. Foxconn needs to change its labor practices - as does pretty much every other manufacturer with plants in Dongguan, Kunshan or anywhere else in China.

It's not even that simple: Apple hires ODM and OEM firms for its various parts - often different components, from speakers to camera modules to touch screens - are made by different companies. This is true of basically every electronic product you buy - the people who actually design and produce the stuff you use aren't Toshiba, Dell, Acer, Apple etc.: they're companies you've never heard of (I'd name names but I actually teach for a lot of these companies and have signed non-disclosure agreements - to say anything that could be perceived as negative about specific ones on this blog could land me in legal trouble or see me out of a job. So I won't - because I'm totally a part of the system too). 

Even they have vendors - a lot of what Foxconn "produces" is actually designed through a complex system of vendors who design and manufacture the components, and a lot of guanxi (networking) is involved in which vendors get which contracts.

What's more, as most people who live in Taiwan know, the design and R&D in these companies tend to happen in offices in Taiwan, where the design and engineering talent seems to be concentrated. The manufacturing happens in China, often at factory sites owned by the Taiwanese companies and headed up by Taiwanese bosses. The guys who design this stuff are Taiwanese, the poor sods in the factories are Chinese, and their Taiwanese bosses often have little sympathy (side note: this is not always true. I teach at companies like these and often have students who are sent to China for long periods to deal with manufacturing issues. A lot of them are good people who agree that working conditions are abysmal and would like to do something about that. Let us not paint them all with the same brush).

So Apple - or whoever - calls up Foxconn to talk production. Foxconn assigns vendor codes to other companies who help design components (although Foxconn doesn't seem to farm out manufacturing, it  does at times farm out design). Those guys are all in Taiwan or occasionally Korea. Their lives are not as horrific as the Chinese factory workers', but they still work terribly long hours - I'd say unfairly long, for relatively little pay - often arriving between 7 and 9am and working until late at night. Sometimes they're lucky and get to go home by 7pm. Often they're in the office later, or bring work home and keep at it until midnight. These guys have sympathy for the horrific lives of the Chinese factory workers, but they're overworked themselves - what can they do? "This is just how it is" is a chorus you often hear repeated in this sad song.

This is why, while my heart is with the activists and those who speak up, deep down I just don't think it will work. Sure, you could put pressure on Apple, but the workers in question don't work for Apple. Apple can put pressure on Foxconn - threatening to change vendors, for instance - and Foxconn can decide whether or not to reform labor practices. It might have some effect, but probably not much, probably diluted, and probably short-lived.

Do you really think, though, that Terry Gou gives a damn about some American hippies whining about labor practices in Chinese factories? I assure you he does not. Terry Gou cares about money. You want to get Apple's attention and by extension Gou's? You stop buying iPhones and other Apple products. You make it clear through a strong PR campaign why it's happening. Then, and only then, might you have some impact on what Foxconn is doing. In the meantime, of course, a lot of engineers  - my students - working for ODM companies in Taiwan get laid off: a sad side effect. Most of them are just working their butts off 15 hours a day to support themselves and their families. Most of them don't want to see Chinese factory workers treated badly, either, but they want iPhones too - most have them - and they don't think there's anything they can do. Partly because "this is just the way things are" and partly because they're overworked too, and partly because their livelihoods are linked more closely to those Chinese factory workers.

And then, if labor practices do improve, prices will go up. We say that's fine, but we're not everyone - sales probably will drop and Foxconn - whom I don't teach for, by the way - will find some other way to cut costs, or secretly go back to treating workers badly and try to do so in less transparent ways, or Apple will find another vendor who does the same thing. Plenty of Chinese workers who wanted to keep their terrible jobs would lose them. A blessing in disguise for some, a ticket to poverty for others.

It gets harder. You can say "well I just won't buy Apple products" but they all do this. HTC has been in the news for overworking its employees (I have no contract with HTC, I should add). Pretty much any electronic product you could buy is produced under conditions just as bad. You can't escape it by buying a dumbphone and giving up your mobile access: those same companies produce the components that go into dumb phones, too. If you want to escape it, you can't have any product whose components were made in China. If we all do this, that means, by extension, putting many of the overworked Taiwanese engineers out of work, too. You, my activist friend, are fucking stuck.  And it blows, it really does.

So how can it change? And how do I feel, being a part of this system?

Well, it probably won't change much at the hands of angry Westerners who want Chinese factory workers to have better jobs and lives - as much as I wish that could make a difference. It's systemic, and so the entire system needs to change. Asia - especially China, but really Asia as a whole - needs to have a worker's revolution not unlike the labor reforms that America went through post-Upton Sinclair. Ideas like "free time", "worker's rights", "fair pay" and "reasonable work responsibilities and hours" need to take hold. As of now, they have not - at least not in Chinese factories.

I don't hold up much hope that such ideas will transmit from the West to factories in China directly. I can't think of two things more different than the job of the person who makes the dingbat that makes something in an iPhone run and the job of the person who owns the iPhone. I can't think of anything more different than their two cultures, lives, life experiences and biases - although their desires and goals are probably fairly similar: after all, everyone wants a good job, good pay, free time and the chance to have a happy life.

I do, however, have some hope that these ideas will start to influence the tech company offices in Taiwan. In some ways, they already have. Taiwanese office workers are well aware of concepts like overtime pay, work-life balance and flex-time. They even get guaranteed maternity leave and a few days of paternity leave (which should be more, but that's a different post) - something Americans don't always get. More and more workers want those things, and more and more hope that once the economy picks up that wages will rise to fairer levels. The ideas are slow to infiltrate, but they are here and I believe they will burrow deeper as time goes on, especially if the economy improves.

From there, you could start to influence the Taiwanese factory bosses. Terry Gou and Cher Wang - who quite literally have had employees work themselves to death, a phrase that's used as a joke in the USA but is deadly serious here - might have an employee mutiny on their hands, or have trouble recruiting good engineers. They might then decide to start treating workers better. From there it could start to seep into China, and things might get better. Maybe. 

In tandem with that, the Chinese economy needs to develop - it needs to reach a point where many of those workers who are quite literally dying of overwork and mistreatment don't need those terrible jobs. Sure, manufacturing will likely be moved again, to another Third World country with abusive labor practices and it'll all start again, but maybe we'll all be more aware by then and it won't take so long to change things.

How do I feel about this? After all, my livelihood comes from working for these companies. I haven't named many names because I teach at many of them, and not only am I legally obligated not to bring up names, but I do respect my students. They are generally good people stuck in a crappy system, just like you and me.

Well, I feel like crap, sometimes, knowing that my salary is also paid, ultimately, off the back of these workers in China. That the Taiwanese companies wouldn't be able to afford the training budgets that pay for my services if they didn't treat the workers in their factories in China like beasts of burden.

I also feel like, as much as I am able, that the only way to make peace with this is to try to be a part of the solution - because this is my job, and I like my students, and I genuinely want them to gain business skills and improve their English so that they, too, can move up to something better, and I wouldn't be any morally cleaner teaching the engineers of tomorrow at some underpaid buxiban job.

It probably doesn't have much effect, but the best I can do is to be a grain of sand. An irritating, noticeable grain of sand in everyone's underpants that agitates and calls for change. I'm not shy in saying, when asked, that I think my students work too hard, that work culture in Asia is seriously. fucked. up. and that it's even worse in China, and hey guys, you know this so keep that in mind if you're ever the boss. I try to "be the change I want to see in the world" - I have a well-paid job and make it clear that my greatest benefit is free time and the ability to structure my own life and have a great deal of freedom. Some students don't really absorb the import of this; others think "great for her but this is how things are in Asia". Some, though, look at me like a light has turned on in their heads: if she can be free and earn a good living, and if she can balance life and work and be satisfied on both fronts, why can't I?  She is not automatically more entitled to it than I am because she is foreign, or white, or a native English speaker. I could do this too, if I really wanted to. Or could I? Could I? Hmm.

If nothing else - because there is nothing else I can do - I try to be an example of how important personal time, fair pay and a good life really is, and how that is worth fighting for. It may not do much now, but the more that this idea gains exposure in Asia, the better. I'm one person, there's not much I can do, and I'm not Asian and don't want to make this all White Man's Burden-y, but it is what I can do.


1 comment:

ordinary malaysian said...

Sure, Apple is not Foxconn and Foxconn is not Apple. But if Apple keeps quiet or only makes perfunctory noises, it is ultimately responsible just like the Taiwanese and the ultimate ipad/iphone consumers. They constitute a chain of exploiters. But not all countries can afford to enjoy the same level of labour privileges like short hours, nice worker dorms, et al. Otherwise each country would have to produce their own goods, for what comparative advantage would there be? I think we need to strike a balance, but we can't talk of equality, horrible as this might sound. The market is not an equitable place. It is a jungle out there, like you say, but not necessarily a Chinese jungle. It's an economic jungle, as brutal as any jungle, concrete included. Ideally of course, you and I should just pay what is due and not go looking/hoping for bargains or expecting bargain prizes. Even then, there will be exploitation. Ultimately, economics is all about exploitation. We can only try to minimise the brutality. But we can't deceive ourselves. God made a mistake when he banished you and me from the garden. God made a mistake for making us need physical sustenance. Perhaps god is the ultimate economic czar, as brutal as any and as failing as all.