“The closest many places get to anything like the westernized world.”
I’m paraphrasing, but I heard this sentiment expressed at the end of an NPR podcast interview discussing Mike Daisey and his work in Shenzhen, China at Foxconn, one of Apple’s suppliers. When I isolate this sentiment, mull it over and visualize what it might be referring to, what come to mind are “good” things. Micro investing, infrastructure, democracy maybe. But this sentiment was not referring to those things. It was referring to sweatshops. It was a response to the shock that many Americans, including Mike Daisey, die hard Apple fan, experienced upon learning of child labor, extremely constricted living conditions, poisonous cleaning fluids for gadgets, and 12 suicides from the rooftops of Foxconn reported in 2010. In response to those vivid and gut-wrenching revelations comes this sentiment.
It’s better with sweatshops than without.
Better than rice paddies.
They’ve helped improve the standard of living so far, and they’re a necessary interim step to achieve conditions more worthy of human beings. Look at India, they say, look at parts of China before globalization. Now they have a newspaper in a city where one wasn’t before. Newspapers. Westernization. Sweatshops being the necessary evil to achieve them. The rationale holds up, in many ways. Social and Economic development take time, and growing pains such as America’s own sweatshop era are to be expected along the way. But along the way to what? Remove Apple’s guilt or innocence (and to be fair, the guilt or innocence many, many other American technology companies being supplied by Foxconn and other sweatshops) from the equation and look with me at the implications of all of it. We justify the condition of sweatshop workers’ lives because they are in the throes of westernization. They are on their way to becoming us so therefore it’s “natural” or justifiable? And as long as Apple and other implement codes of conduct, perform routine checks, and monitor to make sure that things are getting too out of hand, we can say to ourselves that it will make Chinese lives better on the whole. And maybe it will, maybe that is what they aspire to do, is to build a Western infrastructure. But I cannot feel that they are making this choice themselves. America is acting as a third-person taskmaster to those who feel enslaved with its demand for Chinese labor.
Apple is a flawed in their actions in this, sure. They overlooked glaring inhumanity for the sake of profit. However, it’s been done before and will continue to be despite the actions Apple took to correct course, because we call countries, cultures and economies “developing” and then treat them and trade with them like they are developed. We are shaping them and assuming they will be better off for it. If we were to shrink the value chain to where Apple consumers walked to the gates of Foxconn to buy their iPhones, and to shout and cheer “More! More!” and say huzzah for innovation, would we not be tyrants? Would it be worth it so that we could download faster?
If that’s who we are, why would anyone want to be like “us”?
I don’t even want to be that “us”.