I have the new iPad. I confess. I have the original iPad. I have an iPhone, a MacBook Pro and we have several other Mac desktops and laptops of various vintage and utility in our family. Ever since the New York Times series on Apple and its relationship with manufacturers in China came out I have been conflicted about my slavish adoration of all things Apple. Of course, I knew most of the devices I use were built in China and I knew the conditions were often harsh and sometimes deadly. Then I heard Mike Daisy’s dramatic story as presented on This American Life as I waited for the new iPad to be released and my guilt began to mount.
I also knew that the factories in China are not having a hard time finding workers because as bad as some of the conditions and pay are, they are much better than the abject poverty most of them face in rural China. I am aware that Apple is not alone among tech companies taking advantage of China’s low cost labor and efficient supply chains. Indeed, if I look around my house or probably your house, there are hundreds of items in common use that are “Made in China”.
So what am I supposed to do with this information? Should I refrain from using Apple products? What about all the other items built by “exploited” workers? What should my moral stance be? What should any of us do in the face of exported manufacturing jobs that will never come back to the U.S.?
I listened to This American Life’s retraction show on a drive up from Santa Rosa where, among other things, I visited an Apple store and had a very good experience. But the retraction show was more about the journalistic integrity of the Mike Daisy story and NPR than it was about the core issue. At the end, the question still hung in the air. How are we to feel about the conditions of Chinese factory workers? What are we to do to make it better? BTW, the retraction show is an incredible listen. In some ways, more moving, powerful and thought provoking than the original broadcast.
To add to the mess Apple, the richest company in the world, decided to spend some of it’s amassed wealth by giving dividends to investors and buying back stock, further driving up it’s share value. At first, I thought this was outrageous in the face of all the bad publicity around the China story.
But then I thought, maybe Apple is laying the groundwork for doing something much more radical than creating a new product that changes an entire market. Maybe Apple is paying off its investors while it plans a bigger gamble. Maybe Apple is going to lead the way in transforming the global manufacturing market by forcing its contractors to improve conditions and pay for all their workers. Not in just a small way, but in a big way.
What might happen if Apple did this? It would force other manufacturing contractors to raise their conditions and pay in order to compete. It would help create a bigger market for the very tech toys we in the U.S. gobble up as more people would be able to afford them. It would create a higher base for manufacturing jobs around the world that would then make our own worker pool seem more competitive (though there are other more complicated issues than labor cost involved in helping bring those kinds of jobs back to our shores) and it would further burnish Apple’s image as a company that “Thinks Different”.
So, this is what I can do. I can keep buying the gadgets I love. And I can write this blog as a tiny effort to encourage Apple to become an even more visionary company that helps transform global economics. After all, what else does it need to prove? Maybe this will be Steve Jobs’ true legacy.
I’m sure my logic is flawed and my reasoning is really rationalization. If you think so, let me know in the comments.