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The Foxconn Conundrum

Just as Apple increases scrutiny of its supply chain, Foxconn workers want more overtime.
December 20, 2012

One of the most interesting and challenging stories surrounding the iRevolution–and frankly one where many gadget reporters have been a little out of their depth–surrounds the question of who exactly makes our iDevices, and how. By now it’s widely known that low-wage manufacturing in China, especially at Foxconn, is the engine that leads to a lot of Apple products (and other technology products); Foxconn workers are so iconic as to have been the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch, even. At first glance, the narrative of Foxconn and the iEconomy has appeared to be simple. That narrative–espoused by Mike Daisey and others–had been that Western consumer lust had caused us to turn a blind eye to the apparent exploitation of workers in China, an exploitation that went so far as to lead to a string of suicides. And Apple, went the implied narrative, was failing to do its duty to those in its supply chain, blinded by its greed. 

Delving deeper, though, the story appears more complicated (see “An (Actual!) Look Inside Foxconn”). Simon Montlake at Forbes sums it up well: “the ethics of low-wage manufacturing are complex.” Two pieces of news this week have made that especially vivid. First, Apple updated its supplier responsibility pages to note that it was tracking worker hours more extensively than before, as MacRumors first spotted. Second, Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Mozur visited Foxconn in Shenzhen and found that, irony of ironies, the limited hours that labor rights advocates have been fighting for may simply not be what Foxconn workers, by and large, want. “Foxconn Workers Say, ‘Keep Our Overtime,” ran the headline. Mozur’s survey may not have been scientific, but it was telling. He wrote:

“more than 15 workers on the Shenzhen campus said in interviews that they work more than the legal limit of nine overtime hours a week. A majority said they work 10 to 15 overtime hours and would prefer more, having left their distant homes to make money in this southern Chinese boomtown on the border of Hong Kong.”

This was a theme that emerged in the fallout of the Mike Daisey “This American Life” debacle (see “Mike Daisey, Storyteller”). In the episode-long retraction of Daisey’s monologue/“report” on Foxconn, Ira Glass interviewed Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, who pointed out that oftentimes–though not always–Foxconn workers just want to work as much as possible. Duhigg pointed out that in 2005, Apple created a “Supplier Code of Conduct” that “said that no one should work more than 60 hours per week that’s working inside a factory that’s making an Apple product”; Apple also was well aware that roughly half of audited factories were violating that provision.

“Now, is that necessarily so bad?” asked Glass. “Aren’t a lot of these workers moving to the city to work as many hours as possible? They’re away from their families. They’re young. And they’re there to make money, and they don’t care.”

Duhigg replied: “That’s exactly right. When we talked– my colleague, David Barboza, as well as a number translators have spoken to a number of employees in these factories. And that’s exactly what they say. And Apple says that, as well. They say, look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate– and in some places is illegal– is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.” (Duhigg added that not all workers felt that way; some felt coerced into overtime. It’s complicated.)

So is all the agitating for Chinese workers’ rights so much misguided sympathy? Note that even Nick Kristof of the Times has defended sweatshops as a beneficial component of industrializing nations, saying, “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.” That’s not a typo: in favor of sweatshops. Was it not our gadget lust that harmed workers, but rather our liberal hand-wringing?

Again, it’s… complicated. In order to prevent workers from moving to other factories in search of further overtime, Foxconn may have to adjust base pay upwards–arguably a victory for workers (unless that price pressure should cause Foxconn to abandon China altogether, putting those workers out of jobs altogether; unlikely, but it’s eyeing other markets for manufacturing). It’s also true that outside scrutiny of Foxconn has led to other improvements: the ability for workers to choose to dorm with friends, for instance, and a commitment to improving safety conditions on the job. There’s a lot to wrestle with here; the iPhone is a global product, and the circumstances of its production are as tangled, complicated, and morally shaded as the global economy. 

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