Sunday, February 12, 2012



David Pogue is a technology columnist at the New York Times and an avowed Mac aficionado. As such, I have been waiting for years at this point for him to speak about issues in our electronics manufacturing.

I've publicly invited him to my work for over a year, and I think it's safe to say that it's the highest profile work about Apple and the Macintosh that Mr. Pogue has pointedly not attended—from his public reputation it is well known that Mr. Pogue would walk over broken glass barefoot to see anything about Apple, Steve Jobs, or the Mac.

This week
he finally did post something...and it was disappointing. It does repeat what appears to be the dominant talking points coming from the tech journalism world, and so I thought I'd take a moment and show how they fail to engage with the real issues.

The article and the response are healthy. Nobody wants to see workers exploited, and if Apple can pressure Foxconn to clean up its act, it should.

It is nice to see the conversation shifted so that mainstream tech columnists agree that it is a positive thing to learn about working conditions, and agrees that we don't want workers exploited. When I started my work in this arena almost two years ago, this was not the case, and I believe many in the tech world would not agree with Mr. Pogue's sensible statement above.

I have one issue with what he says here. The "if" is troubling. If? Apple is one of the most profitable companies in the history of the world, with $100 billion dollars sitting in the bank right now. Is there really a question that they might not be able to make their supplier come into compliance with local labor laws? If we can't expect Apple to obey the law and do the right thing, if it is actually impossible...what should our expectations be for any corporation?

There’s an important factor, however, that seems to be largely missing from the conversation, though it was noted in the article: Apple isn’t the only company that builds electronics at Chinese factories. The truth is, almost all of them do.

This is a constant drumbeat from the tech industry—they really like to paint Apple as having been unfairly targeted. They believe that there is something on the scale of a conspiracy to not mention other companies in favor of only singling out Apple.

Except that this isn't true. My work certainly talks about how these issues are pervasive across the industry. Online discussions stress that point again and again, and I have a hard time finding any articles that don't make that point. All the video I have watched (and I have watched a lot) mentions this. When people talk about solutions, they mention the need for reform across the industry.

This is a straw man. While it is true that a soundbite on the nightly local news may not mention other companies, any coverage of any length has been talking about these issues in the context of the entire industry. This talking point is useful to tech folks as it helps obscure the debate—by focusing on whether blame is apportioned proportionately, one avoids the unpleasant reality of actually grappling with the issue.

So yes, we should pressure Apple to continue putting pressure on Foxconn. But at the same time, we seem to be ignoring a much bigger and more important question: How much do we care?

This is a standard response—the responsibility shifts, instantly, from being the work of the corporations who have created these situations to the public who buys the devices. But the public works with certain assumptions—for instance, the assumption that our corporations obey the rule of law. Foxconn is in clear violation of almost every part of the labor laws in China. We should not have to poll the public just to get corporations to not behave illegally.

Bringing workplace standards and pay in Chinese factories up to American levels would, of course, raise the price of our electronics. How much is hard to say, but a financial analyst for an outsourcing company figures a $200 iPhone might cost $350 if it were built here.

First, it would be nice if Mr. Pogue would at least link to statistics he would like to cite, especially when most of his argument hinges on them.

Second—and I have been saying this for years now—no one serious in this conversation is advocating to raise pay; we're talking about safe workplaces. One does not have to raise everyone's wages to prevent excessive overtime, abusive work environments, and chemical poisonings.

Finally, this mysterious statistic Mr. Pogue is quoting is a guesstimated cost of producing these electronics in America. Again, no one who has been engaged in this supply conversation for years is advocating that—the entire supply chain is in China, and the NYT series goes into detail about how complex such an undertaking would be.

More factually, the labor cost of an iPhone
is about $6. This is on a device that retails for $600.

That's 1%.

If improving work conditions to the point that one would not go to prison if the plant were in California even doubles the cost of labor (which would be ludicrously high), it means that an iPhone would cost $6 more to produce.

How would we get there? Which electronics brand would jump first? In other words, what assurance would the Apples and Dells and Panasonics have that if they forced their Chinese contractors to adopt American-level wages and conditions, their competitors would all do so simultaneously?

Again—Mr. Pogue conflates wages with work conditions.

Setting that aside, if the industry banded together they could create a foundation that would independently verify working conditions and audit companies, fueled by 1% of the gross margins from each company, and with those resources transform how electronics are made forever. Then they could create a mark to signify to consumers that they are in compliance.

If they will not willingly regulate themselves to come into compliance, then in the absence of enforcement from a suborned and authoritarian China it becomes our issue. There is nothing that stops our lawmakers from compelling the industry to reform—and the electronics industry does not have a very strong lobby. If they will not do the right thing, in time they will be compelled to, though I believe they will eventually bend before it comes to that.

The issue is complicated. It’s upsetting. We, the consumers, want our shiny electronics. We want them cheap, yet we want them built by well-paid, healthy workers. But apparently, we can’t have both.

The only thing preventing both of these things from happening is the obsession with corporate profit margins at all costs, intentional blindness to human suffering, and a failure to understand that these issues, which underlie our entire relationship with globalism, are only going to grow every year. They are never going away.

I'd like to end this with an open invitation to Mr. Pogue:

Come see the show. I'll get you tickets for any night. And let's get a drink afterwards, and talk this out.