Thursday, June 3, 2010

The new “blood diamond?”

Several years back, the world was up in arms over the trafficking of “blood diamonds” – gems mined and sold out of Africa, which funded all sorts of nasty activities…like wars.

Hollywood, led by The Social Conscience That Is Leo, even made a movie about the horrors.

Eventually, panged by guilt, the West passed laws and made it socially taboo to purchase “a girl’s best friend” from anyone/anywhere it couldn’t be ascertained that the jewels were free of sin…of the taint of sub-Saharan coup d’états, jungle warlords conducting mining operations with slaves, and all the brutality one can imagine in a Third World environment fueled by First World money (and weaponry).

Now we have the new blood diamond. Perhaps a better name might be the “iBlood Diamond.”

Today, in one of China’s fastest-growing, most globally capitalistic cities, more than 300,000 workers toil in the biggest manufacturing facility in the world, owned by electronics giant, Foxconn. If you own any number of electronic and computing gadgets, chances are the drones of Foxconn put it together (for just a few hundred dollars a month – at best). Most notably, Apple’s products – the iPhone, Mac Books and the hugely popular iPad – are all produced at mega-plants in Longhua and Shenzhen (employing 300,000 and 120,000 workers, respectively).

A busy worker is a happy worker - right?

Working in shifts that run 10 -12 hours and perhaps longer, employees live at the facility 24/7 and life is Spartan and very regimented. While workers are provided food, shelter and medical care (often in shorter supply than what they receive at Foxconn’s facilities), the life of a Foxconn worker closely resembles something more akin to the endeavors of colonizing insects than it does modern day humans. Socializing on the factory floor is strongly discouraged and output quotas test even the most able. Before long, like at most sweatshops, employees are burnt out. (A Foxconn worker recently died from “overwork and fatigue.”)

The facility and the conditions workers toil “against” have been coming under tremendous scrutiny lately, as more than a dozen Foxconn workers have committed suicide, numerous others have attempted to do so, and others have run away from the facility. Reacting to the harsh glare of international criticism, Foxconn has taken a “humane” approach to helping its workers: additional counselors have been made available; and workers now have to sign a pledge promising not to hurt or kill themselves or others.

According to a report by The New York Times, Foxconn, “Stung by labor shortages and a rash of suicides this year at its large factories in southern China, Foxconn Technology said Wednesday that it would immediately raise the salaries of many of its Chinese workers by 33 percent. The pay increase is the latest indication that labor costs are rising in China’s coastal manufacturing centers and that workers are demanding higher pay to offset an increase in inflation and soaring food and property prices.” As my colleague on the John Batchelor Show, Gordon Chang, points out, “…this isn’t about money [to the workers]. This is about human dignity.”

Apple's Steve Jobs (left); and protesters decrying working conditions at Foxconn...

In a story posted by Reuters, “Apple Inc Chief Executive Steve Jobs finds ‘troubling’ a string of worker deaths at Foxconn, the contract manufacturer that assembles the company's iPhones and iPads, but said its factory in China ‘is not a sweatshop.’ But a string of deaths at Foxconn's base in southern China, which critics blame on stressful working conditions, threatens to cast a shadow over the device's success. ‘It's a difficult situation,’ Jobs, dressed in his customary black turtleneck and jeans, said on stage. ‘We're trying to understand right now, before we go in and say we know the solution.’"

In one of his recent columns for, Chang writes “The mystery of the suicides is that Foxconn's facilities are by no means the worst in China. On the contrary, because the company is so visible, its working conditions, as dehumanizing as they are, are considered to be among the best of the mass manufacturers in the country. That's why, on one level, the suicides are so troubling. They strike at the heart of the Chinese industrial system, perhaps signaling the questioning of the Communist Party's model of manufacturing. That model worked because peasants were willing to travel a thousand miles to live in labor-camp conditions. Today, we see the social detachment, alienation and despair that are the result of an efficient--but ultimately unsustainable--system. The inspectors from Apple will examine the details of Foxconn's facilities, which they have seen before, but they will not look at the larger issue: the compatibility of China's economic model to a modernizing society.”

Chang is absolutely correct, but there is another side to this we must consider (beyond the failings of China, the thugocracy that rules it and the outside capitalists willing to take advantage of slave labor-like conditions there). We must consider our own actions.

If, during the “blood diamond” conflicts in Africa, you’d been offered a gem you knew came to you along a route of blood, sorrow and misery, would you take it? Would it matter the price? That may be where we are – or are heading – with products manufactured/assembled at Foxconn (and other similar facilities). It’s one thing to be able to stand back and point at wealthy, bejeweled people and demand they forsake their diamonds. It’s always easier to ask for sacrifice if you can’t/won’t yourself. But devices like smart phones and laptops are so ubiquitous these days, I’m afraid that when the true story of Foxconn and the life of indentured servants throughout China come to light, there won’t be much of a push from the West to change things.

They're everywhere...

You see, we love the convenience of our gadgets. We love how fun the apps are and how nice it is to chat, email and web-browse on the go. And most of all, we love the price. They are ubiquitous because they are affordable. Business depends on the devices, families stay connected with them…they’ve even become de rigueur among the youngest in society.

In one sense, these iMachines could very well be the new blood diamonds: socially unacceptable pariahs. On the other hand, they never will be. There is no desire among the comfortable to become afflicted…nor is there the will among them to comfort the afflicted.

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