Poor working conditions: the price we have to pay for electronics

Nathan Lawrence

In recent months, Apple’s manufacturing processes in China, specifically with the Foxconn manufacturing corporation, have received a lot of major press attention. However, Apple is not the only party who deserves this attention, nor should it necessarily be held responsible for the terrible working conditions present in these factories and communities.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, many Foxconn workers spend over 80 hours a week assembling electronics, not just for Apple but other major technology brands such as Samsung and Acer.

For these long hours, they are paid a paltry $2.62 an hour – Foxconn is also said to have formerly hired children between the ages of 12 and 20 for the even more ridiculous wage of 70 cents an hour.

Despite these poor conditions, however, Foxconn workers are afforded a certain degree of hospitality by their employer: They are housed together in on-premises dormitories and are fed by the company, allowing them to send most of their wages home to family in need, and – despite the boring nature of the job – an employee satisfaction survey released this week shows that many of the employees were unhappy that their hours may be cut to make conditions more humane.

Many tech journalists and pundits have maligned companies like Apple and Samsung for their acquiescence to the seemingly abusive nature of Chinese manufacturing.

In particular, Apple has recently received a great deal of poor publicity for seeming ambivalent to these conditions, while at the same time continuing to rake in record profits and considering the payment of dividends to its shareholders.The truth is, however, that this is not a problem that Apple can magically wave away.

The United States is just a far wealthier country than China. Given a population of 1.3 billion people, China’s GDP is surprisingly low. At about $5,000 per capita, this comes out to just over 10 percent of the United States’ GDP per capita of $48,000.

Just as the working class here creates many of the products that the upper classes consume within the United States, the poorer countries of the world work hard to create products for the richer.

It’s not just that companies like Samsung and Apple are creating these low-paying jobs within Foxconn. It’s also important to note that the Chinese economy plays an enormous part in that it allows them to exist. Even if these jobs were moved over to the United States and minimum wage regulations were lifted, these jobs would be unattractive to American workers.

I’ve never been one to argue in favor of Social Darwinism, but it does seem that in this case, the economically weaker countries will inevitably serve the economically stronger ones.

Last week, Apple renegotiated a contract with Foxconn that will give workers better pay and more free time, but nobody is even talking about companies like Samsung or the dozens of other, smaller hardware vendors who employ Foxconn to manufacture their gadgets, not to mention the hundreds of other factories all around the world that aren’t even connected to Foxconn, yet have similarly horrendous work hours and pay rates.

The situation is far too complex and there are far too many parties involved to simply sum it up in a single categorical statement of what is right and what is wrong. It is easy to criticize, but much more difficult to create a good solution, or even to pinpoint the problem.

As hard as we try to make things better, the status quo will mostly remain intact. If we want our electronics, we have no choice but to yield to these conditions.