Are we outsourcing repression to China? That is the fear driving stepped-up scrutiny of labor conditions at Foxconn, the consumer electronics maker that assembles products for a number of Western technology companies, most prominently Apple.
As one blogger put it before watching the latest high-profile investigation, aired this week on the ABC news program Nightline: ‘‘I had been worried that after I watched the report, I’d feel angst-ridden and guilty about using my iPad, iPhone, or MacBook Pro.’’ An independent assessor working with the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit group that Apple has hired to audit conditions at the plants, said the California company was facing its ‘‘Nike moment,’’ a reference to the 1990s, when the sporting goods maker was accused of using Asian sweatshops to manufacture its iconic sneakers.
The conditions at Foxconn are indeed grim: 12-hour shifts doing boring, repetitive work; dorms that pack seven workers into each room; commands issued by a disembodied fembot. And the ABC cameras and FLA auditors surely didn’t see the worst of it: Foxconn first came to international attention in the spring of 2010, when 18 workers killed themselves, or tried to.
But the Nightline report included an implicit justification — the 3,000 workers lined up at Foxconn’s gates before dawn in hope of a job. Work at Foxconn may be hard and boring, but for many Chinese people, it is better than the alternative.
This is the historic price and promise of industrialization: It is no fun, but it is better than subsistence living back on the farm. And, modernization theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset have argued, as people get richer thanks to dismal jobs like those at Foxconn, they are able to demand more rights.