Foxconn, Working Conditions and How Much We All Really Care

If you follow anything Apple, you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the working conditions at Foxconn, the supplier of such products as the iPhone and the iPad. This controversy has been swirling around the news outlets for a while now and things have really heated up over the past few weeks.

I’m here to ask one important question: how much do people really care? Forget about what the press wants you to think and ask yourself that question. Deep down, how much does it really matter?

China, Incorporated

First, it’s important to get the right frame for all of the things people are telling you. We aren’t talking about working conditions in, say, Nebraska. We’re talking about China, a country that accounts for a huge portion of the world’s population and has been mass-producing Western (and Eastern) goods for the last couple of decades.

What do we know about China? If you’re like me, the answer is probably “not all that much.” What we do know is that as bad as Foxconn is, it can’t be abnormally bad compared to what Chinese workers are accustomed to, given the large crowds of people that try to get a job at the huge supplier’s factory.

The Chinese population, from Wolfram Alpha.

The Chinese population, from Wolfram Alpha.

It’s a plain fact that many of the people that are getting all hot and heavy over this (Western journalists and consumers) are looking at this through the wrong lens. They have jobs that don’t require such long hours and pay a significantly higher salary, so they expect that this is the way it is all over the world. This is a fallacy, not only at Foxconn but in many other countries with similar conditions.

It Isn’t Just Apple

The media seems to think that Apple is the only company that makes use of Foxconn for mass-producing goods. This simply isn’t true; other electronics companies (including Amazon, Microsoft and Sony) work with Foxconn. As a matter of fact, one of the recent suicides that gained a lot of attention wasn’t even working on Apple products, but instead on manufacturing the Xbox 360.

Why is Apple getting blamed for all of this, then? Because Apple is the biggest company, not only in terms of how much they’re ordering from Foxconn but also in terms of, you know, being the biggest company in the entire world. Apple’s a prime target for any kind of controversy, no matter how much they have to do with the actual issue.

What Do You Want Apple To Do About It?

What goes on in Foxconn isn’t, as a point of fact, Apple’s responsibility. While they have a certain moral responsibility that is imposed by the company itself (and its stakeholders) they don’t really have any control of what happens behind Foxconn’s closed doors. Sure, they have one hell of a big stick to make Foxconn do what it wants, but beyond that Foxconn isn’t part of Apple.

Sure, Apple could threaten to leave Foxconn, but what then? Who do they do business with that can crank iOS devices out at the rate that they’re selling? Once you’ve got that (short) list, go ahead and look at how many of those places have better working conditions than Foxconn. Who’s left?

Best of luck finding someone capable of producing that many devices that quickly. (Chart from Asymco)

Best of luck finding someone capable of producing that many devices that quickly. (Chart from Asymco)

Until the rest of the world can match China in terms of sheer export powers, Apple is going to do business with Foxconn. They’re doing their best to help the workers, but at the end of the day Apple can’t decide what happens in the Chinese company.

Does It Really, Genuinely Matter?

Let me ask you this: have you stopped using your iPhone since you heard about all of this stuff that’s going on at Foxconn? My money is on no, you haven’t. I don’t blame you, neither have I.

Do you think that the people who walk into a carrier’s store or Best Buy are going to think to themselves, Hey, I wonder how this was made and how much someone had to work to produce it? Again, my money is on no. We don’t care about that in our day-to-day lives. We’re looking for well-made, cheap products, and Foxconn is where we can get them from.

If you actually stopped using your iPhone because of this, and you’re working to change things, good for you. I’m happy, and I would like to see these things change. Until then though, I’m not going to pretend that this is some moral injustice that we’re all just realizing. This is the way that the world works. You can either act like you didn’t know that all along or you can continue using the products that you love.

My money’s on the latter.