Column: American businesses taking advantage of sweatshop labor

If you ask Siri, the digital female assistant programmed into the iPhone 4GS, where she was created, she will evasively reply, “I’m not allowed to say.” If you turn it around, the fine print on all Apple devices reads, “Made In China.”

It’s no secret that the most successful companies in the United States, including Apple Inc., utilize inexpensive labor from overseas to help cut production costs, despite that they must exploit and abuse workers to save that money.

Another multinational manufacturer, Foxconn, has a factory in Shenzhen, China where Apple products are made. According to the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Foxconn’s 700,000 workers are treated like machines and trained to incessantly perform the same task for a standard shift of 12 hours a day.

It would cost Apple a lot more to make their products in the United States since labor laws are drastically different (and the workforce is usually cheaper) in foreign countries. Higher wages and more humane working conditions cost more, making for a more expensive iPhone. On the other hand, relocating jobs back to the states would be key in alleviating unemployment in the current economic recession.  Apple is worth more than $400 billion, and is more than capable of changing their labor practices, but they refuse, citing the expense.

Foxconn has been scrutinized in past years for their abusive labor practices and treatment of factory workers. The minimum age to legally work in China is 16 years old, yet children as young as 13 have been found working at Foxconn factories.

Employees at the plant are often subjected to lethal working conditions, such as the screen-cleaning solution n-hexane, a neurotoxin. It can cause nervous system failure, muscular weakness and vision impairment. In 2009, 137 factory employees needed treatment for n-hexane poisoning, while one died.

Among the most unsettling elements of working in a sweatshop is the fact that many workers have committed suicide by jumping off the roof. The regularity of suicides looked bad for the company. Foxconn, in a remarkably insensitive move, installed safety nets to catch the falling workers instead of improving the circumstances that would cause someone to attempt suicide.

These reports of the factory environment are hardly breaking news, and Apple is not the only corporation that employs sweatshop labor. Nike, The Gap and Wal-Mart, among others, all rely on cheap labor from overseas factories in Indonesia, Saipan and Bangladesh, respectively.

Some believe sweatshop labor could be beneficial, including Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who wrote an article in Slate Magazine titled, “In Praise of Cheap Labor.”

“The growth of manufacturing…has a ripple effect throughout the economy,” he wrote. “The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.”

Supporters of sweatshop labor claim that despite its undeniably poor conditions, it can play a central role in a country’s development. The U.S. went through its own period of using sweatshop labor in its growth during the Industrial Revolution.

The Steve Jobs biography recounts his meeting with President Obama in the all of 2010 when Jobs famously remarked, “You’re headed for a one-term presidency.” To prevent this, Jobs said, the administration has to be more business-friendly.

“It’s easy to build a factory in China and almost impossible to do so these days in America largely because of regulations and unnecessary costs,” Jobs told Obama.

In his State of the Union speech on Jan. 24, Obama discussed how outsourcing jobs cripples the economy and proposed his “insourcing” plan for the future.

“We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits,” he said. “It is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America. Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.”

The ultimate irony here is that I am writing this from my MacBook, which I love. I take it with me everywhere like a foldable best friend. I know I’m not alone. Lots of us would like to improve conditions for those workers making our products.  I also know that this laptop would cost at least three times its current market price if it were made in America, which is one of the many reasons why our economy is in peril.

This column was originally published for the Santa Barbara City College newspaper, The Channels on February 3, 2012 at http://www.thechannels.org/opinion/2012/02/03/american-businesses-taking-advantage-of-foreign-sweatshop-labor/

For more work published at The Channels: http://www.thechannels.org/staff/2012/02/08/emerson-malone-arts-editor/

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