Wednesday, February 01, 2012

(ADDENDUM: I have dismantled Mr. Worstall's response here for your edification.)


Stephen Fry, brilliant comedian, wonderful actor, and bon vivant just posted this in his
Twitter feed:


As a fellow raconteur it's painful to have to confront Mr. Fry with this fact, but he's being a total idiot.

He's in good company—most of the Mac universe is in the midst of a massive propaganda campaign, trying to convince itself and the universe that the cognitive dissonance they are feeling at this moment isn't real.

So you're going to see some good people, like Mr. Fry, who happen to love their Apple products very much, say some horrible things because they don't actually understand how to reconcile the beauty and grace of their wonderful Apple products with the
unvarnished, verified truth of how they are produced.

Let's take apart Mr. Fry's tweet. First is this contention:

Less than 25% of Foxconn make Apple products, the rest is Dell, HP &c.

I see this all the time as a defense. It is actually the preferred defense of Mac fanboys and tech apologists of all stripes, and it's pathetic.

Yes, Foxconn makes things for many different companies. Yes, conditions are terrible across the entire Special Economic Zone. But it is bizarre tech fannishness in the extreme to somehow think that because others are implicated in a crime that this somehow absolves Apple. It's like a child being caught with their hand in a cookie jar pointing at other children and saying, "They did it too!"

Stephen is smart enough to recognize this, which is why he puts most of his weight in the Forbes article he links to. Now that popular consciousness is beginning to understand just how poorly Apple has lived up to the image it has always portrayed to the world, it was inevitable that there would be a round of articles claiming anyone in favor of safe workplaces and working standards to be a foolish opponent of global capitalism.

This one is from Tim Worstall, writing for Forbes. Mr. Worstall is a smart fellow, with good credentials, but he isn't addressing the real issues in this post, because he knows if he engages with them directly, he will lose. Here's his full article, and now I'll go through it.

After admitting to
the charges in the NYT articles, Mr. Worstall tips his hand by saying:

Well, yes, they’re poor people living in a poor country. That’s what being poor means, having to work extremely hard to make very little. Yes, that is a harsh thing to say but then reality can indeed be harsh.

First—may I say—daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn. It is refreshing to see the neoliberal model laid out so glaringly. This must be the Forbes house style.

I do love that he said it, because it makes it so clear to refute: these are not just "poor people living in a poor country". This is the economic engine in which all of our devices are made—we created that revolution over there, and we exported and created those jobs. We have a direct and clear ethical responsibility to create safe working environments for those people.

What's disgusting here is the underbelly. The clear implication is that because these are "poor people living in a poor country" they don't deserve safe working conditions, or working hours that don't result in people dying on the production line, or factories that don't have explosions that could be prevented. Because they are Chinese they deserve less working protection that we would afford Americans. It's a nasty streak of thinly-veiled racism that underlies a lot of the neoliberal arguments: that the people who suffer in other parts of the world are less human than we are in the first world, and this ameliorates our responsibility to give these jobs the basic protections we believe in for American workers.

Then Mr. Worstall goes on to quote Mr. Krugman at great length, who has never shied away from talking about how much he loves sweatshops. He quotes pages and pages of his writing, but none of it actually engages with labor standards. None.

It is instead all about wages, which as I have argued for years do not have to be coupled to safe working conditions—when I challenged Nicholas Kristoff on this he had no effective response, because there is no defense.

So we are hearing from Krugman here because he has a Nobel prize, so it makes Mr. Worstall look as though he's building an argument, but there's nothing here.

Mr. Worstall then goes on to say:

But now to the specific complaints that are being made. There are three that are being repeated around the intertubes as being particularly outrageous.

The first issue he addresses are the suicides, by using the same discredited logic of playing with statistics that people used in mid-2010 to make themselves feel better. He writes:

Foxconn employs some 1 million people in total so, if the Foxconn workforce were to have the same suicide rate as the general Chinese population (which, to be accurate, it won’t for suicide is not equally divided over age groups and the workforce is predominantly young) we would expect to see 220 suicides among such a number each year.

We actually have an outcry therefore about a suicide rate which is under one tenth of the general suicide rate in the country under discussion. If people were being rational about this instead of spouting nonsense then this would be something that was praised, not vilified.

Yes, let's give Foxconn a medal for their humanitarian work.

Trolls have been running this argument for almost two years now, and that doesn't make it more true. Let me break it down:

1) Those numbers aren't comprehensive. We have no idea what the actual suicide rate is at Foxconn—we only know a large number of people were throwing themselves off of the roof of the workplace, again and again. We have no idea how many more killed themselves in a more conventional manner. So that invalidates this argument from the top—the suicide rate could be lower or higher than "normal", we have no idea.

2) Even if we ignore that we have no numbers, it isn't the number of suicides—it's the cluster. I talked about this on
THIS AMERICAN LIFE—if people kill themselves over and over in the same dramatic way at their workplace, it means something. Dan Lyons took this apart here.

The NYT feature makes clear Foxconn's culpability in failing to respond to attempts to implement measures that could prevent suicides, and obstruction of efforts. This is pertinent to any discussion of these suicides now...but all we get are statistics that have been tarted up to sound convincing. If you don't address the particulars, you haven't addressed anything.

Mr. Worstall goes on to his next charge:

The second is that there have been two explosions at separate plants, both involving aluminium dust, which have killed several and injured many more. Dealing with aluminium dust (which, if very fine and dispersed through the air, can be explosive) is indeed something which we’ve known how to deal with for near a century now.

However, knowing how to deal with this or any other industrial danger does not, regrettably, mean that it is always dealt with. To judge whether safety really is ignored at Foxconn we would like to, well, why not, compare it with US workplace safety?

He then uncorks a new set of statistics proving that more people die at American factories, and therefore Foxconn is a humanitarian wonder—perhaps they will be given a second, even bigger medal to go next to their first one.

This is an even stupider argument.
The NYT piece talks about a huge number of human rights violations, many of which Apple cops to, and none of which Apple disputes. Mr. Worstall chooses not to address the excessive working hours, the exposure to toxic chemicals, the rampant abuse—instead he simply focuses on one raw statistic of how many people died at the workplace.

That makes a lot of sense. I'm sure that's how most of us judge our workplaces is by the death rate. I'm sure that when Mr. Worstall took his position at Forbes, he checked to see what their death rate was, and was gratified to find that it was low.

Of course Forbes doesn't work that way. No workplace functions that way. We assess our workplaces on a variety of factors to judge whether they are humane or not, many of which are detailed at length in
the NYT stories Mr. Worstall is linking to. He is failing to address them because he has no answers, and if he ignores the arguments he can create his own fantasy.

Finally, Mr. Worstall says:

The final point is low pay.

Except that this is a straw man. No one who has done serious work in the area believes that low pay is a serious issue in this conversation. I don't, the NYT features don't—it's a fantasy cooked up to discredit this movement for better labor standards.

A much bigger issue I've reported on, and
covered by the NYT, is that people can't get paid the money they are owed, and that excessive overtime is mandatory and continuous. Conveniently Mr. Worstall ignores this completely, and goes on for a number of paragraphs about an issue that is not related to the labor complaints people have been making against Foxconn for years.

The infographic reiterates points I have refuted above, though it is well laid out and uses nice fonts.

I would ask that people reading this message, if they feel it has merit, please forward to Mr. Fry via
Twitter and his website. If you are feeling so inclined you can also contact Mr. Worstall and make him aware of this response, as I would love to see if he has anything to say.

My hope is that Mr. Fry, being the upstanding gentleman that he is, will see the inherent humanity in what I have presented here. It is hard to hear terrible news about a company that we all have a lot invested in—I have been a huge Apple fan my entire life—but I feel certain Mr. Fry has the kind of spirit and will to speak the truth when he is confronted with uncomfortable, but undeniable, fact.

Best regards,

Mike Daisey