The Truth About iPhone Factory Workers


Foxconn may be hiring less workers because existing workers are more willing to stay on.
Foxconn may be hiring less workers because existing workers are more willing to stay on.

The Apple iPhone has become the poster child for the problems of Chinese and American labor.

One strain of conventional wisdom goes that while rich, entitled Western elites whine and complain over trivial issues like maps and purple haze on screens, abused, exploited Chinese factory workers slave away to make those iPhones in unsafe factories and under exploitative conditions.

The iPhone represents the shafting of the Chinese worker.

Another strain of conventional wisdom goes that greedy Apple (and other companies) ships factory jobs overseas to China, where Chinese factory workers get all the jobs, and American workers are left in the unemployment line.

The iPhone represents the shafting of the American worker.

Here’s an idea. Let’s stop accepting these brain-dead caricatures, and insist on the truth about iPhones, factories and workers.

The Chinese Worker As iPhone Victim

The most recent example of the abused Chinese worker stereotype came from Saturday Night Live last weekend. If you didn’t see it, the episode featured a much-talked about skit about a fictional show called “Tech Talk,” on which tech pundits complained about first-world iPhone problems — Apple’s Maps app and the “purple haze” problem with the iPhone 5 camera. Their complaints were answered by a panel of fake Chinese Foxconn factory workers, who sarcastically contrasted the trivial issues with the iPhone with their own desperate plight — living in abusive, joyless, mind-numbingly dull assembly-line work by day, and cramped worker dorms by night.

The fake Chinese accents sounded incredibly racist to me, especially given SNL’s history: Not a single one of the 132 cast members over the show’s 37-year history has been a person of Chinese, Japanese, Korean or East-Asian descent. (I guess to SNL, Asians are only funny if white people are making fun of them with racist accents.)

The whole context for the skit was hypocritical. These rich and famous actors (and writers, producers and so on) are slamming the technology industry for exploiting Chinese factory workers. But guess what? Hollywood is an Apple shop. Nearly every show-biz type uses Apple products.

And what about the cameras, lights, set materials, computers, costume fabrics, set radios and other equipment used to make a TV show — how many of those were made in China?

The hardware behind SNL is also partly made in China, just like Apple products are. The difference is that Apple actually employs Asians, and doesn’t mock Chinese people with racist skits.

The American Worker As iPhone Victim

In the second presidential debates this week, moderator Candy Crowley asked the following question:

“iPad, the Macs, the iPhones, they are all manufactured in China, and one of the major reasons is labor is so much cheaper here. How do you convince a great American company to bring that manufacturing back here?”

Never mind that iPads and iPhones were never manufactured in the United States (it’s hard to bring something back that was never here).

Anyway, Romney said 1) we need to hammer China generally, because they’re a terrible, horrible, no-good cheater of a country; and 2) we need to make America more friendly to entrepreneurs, so all the jobs will come back.

Obama said, in a nutshell, that low-wage, low-skill jobs aren’t coming back, and that ideally we should be working on increasing high-wage, high-skill jobs.

The whole conversation was based on an assumed context that the manufacturing of iPhones and other Apple products in China is a problem that needs to be solved.

The bizarre but widely held assumption that allows such a lame question and such answers to be taken seriously on TV is that it would benefit American voters (to whom the candidates are obligated to pander) if iPhones and other Apple products were actually built in America.

The Truth About Chinese Factory Workers

The truth is that iPhones are not made in China. The component parts for iPhones are made in a great many countries, and the final assembly of those components is done in China.

The reason that iPhones are assembled in China (and almost everything else, too) is because at this stage in its rapid development, China is very, very good at assembling things in factories.

Demographically, China has a growing, America-sized chunk of its population that is middle class, upper class or super rich. And then it has a massively larger segment of the population that is rural, poor and somewhat desperate. The latter are willing to do almost anything to join the former. And that’s where factory workers come in.

High-tech factory work represents an opportunity in many cases to sacrifice a few years to save money for a brighter future.

Young Foxconn factory employees live in miserable and cramped conditions. But those conditions enable workers to squirrel away money, which is why they’re there in the first place. They hope to come out of it as young adults with thousands saved for a down payment on a house, and enough money to get married and start a better life than their parents had.

It’s a brutally tough life, not just during the factory years, but before, too. Poverty is harsh, and factory work is a way out.

That so many young people are willing to work so hard and so skillfully is what makes China the world’s factory. As bad as those factory conditions are, the alternative is no job and no future. In fact, these are the prospects for most of the world’s poor, who live in countries that do not have the economy and the workforce to attract iPhone-like factories.

It’s also important to note that nothing in China is static. The biggest problem Chinese factory managers now have is finding enough workers. In order to attract workers, they have to increasingly raise wages and improve conditions. Very soon, the labor shortage in China will make the country less attractive as a location for new factories, and more factories will be built elsewhere in hungrier markets. China will become more like the United States, with more workers doing higher-paid jobs and the economy being more about consumption than production.

Back to the presidential debates. The idea that America is the right place to build iPhones is ludicrous. It’s simply not possible to find as many workers in the United States who are willing to do that kind of work for anything approaching the low wages Chinese workers make. (Foxconn factory workers make about $2 per hour.)

The obvious end result would be $2,000 iPhones (I’m making that number up, but it would be much more expensive.) The unit shipments of iPhones at that price would shrink, and the amount of money coming into the US economy from iPhones would also shrink. US consumers would have unaffordable phones, and a smaller economy.

Of course, iPhones are just a proxy for all the products built in China. If all those products were built in the US, it would be the American consumer paying massively higher prices for everything. And proposing high prices isn’t going to get anyone elected.

The truth is that the status quo, although imperfect, is better than the assumed remedies of many critics. Firing all the Chinese workers and building iPhone factories in the United States wouldn’t help Chinese workers or America voters.

The United States gets to buy low-cost, high-quality products like the iPhone. China gets a massive boost in employment for jobs with rapidly rising wages and working conditions.

And, in any event, the made-in-China phenomenon isn’t an Apple issue. Nearly all of Apple’s competitors, and in fact nearly all consumer electronics, are assembled in China.

So the whole cultural meme that Apple and iPhone are uniquely associated with the exploitation or abandonment of either Chinese or American workers is moronic.

Yes, let’s support the improvement of wages and working conditions for Chinese workers. Yes, let’s raise employment levels in the United States. But let’s also stop parroting the untrue stereotypes that associate Apple and the iPhone with the abuse of Chinese workers or the unemployment problem in the United States. It’s misleading, inaccurate and dumb.