Dirty, Pretty Things: Apple, Inc. and China (1/27/12)
By Dennis Loo
“Capital … comes into the world soiled with gore from top to toe and oozing blood from every pore.”
-- Karl Marx, Capital
I love my Mac and iPad. Their design and aesthetic appeal make PC’s look like clunkers made by people who never thought that design and technology have anything in common. I hate working on PCs because of this. And don’t get me started about Microsoft’s products.
Apple is also the most successful and admired company today. When The New York Times surveyed people about Apple as part of its series (I and II) on China this week, Americans had trouble thinking of anything negative to say about Apple, with the largest complaint being the prices and only 2% citing its overseas labor practices. On Tuesday Apple announced one of the most profitable quarters for any company in history: $13.06 billion in profits from $46.3 billion in sales.
I am going to first excerpt a few segments from the second Times’ article. I recommend, however, that you read both articles in their entirety if you haven’t already.
“Apple typically asks suppliers to specify how much every part costs, how many workers are needed and the size of their salaries. Executives want to know every financial detail. Afterward, Apple calculates how much it will pay for a part. Most suppliers are allowed only the slimmest of profits.
“So suppliers often try to cut corners, replace expensive chemicals with less costly alternatives, or push their employees to work faster and longer, according to people at those companies.
“’The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,’ said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. ‘And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.’
“In January 2010, workers at a Chinese factory owned by Wintek, an Apple manufacturing partner, went on strike over a variety of issues, including widespread rumors that workers were being exposed to toxins. Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.
“Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.
“Apple commented on the Wintek injuries a year later. In its supplier responsibility report, Apple said it had ‘required Wintek to stop using n-hexane’ and that ‘Apple has verified that all affected workers have been treated successfully, and we continue to monitor their medical reports until full recuperation.’ Apple also said it required Wintek to fix the ventilation system.
“That same month, a New York Times reporter interviewed a dozen injured Wintek workers who said they had never been contacted by Apple or its intermediaries, and that Wintek had pressured them to resign and take cash settlements that would absolve the company of liability. After those interviews, Wintek pledged to provide more compensation to the injured workers and Apple sent a representative to speak with some of them.
“Six months later, trade publications reported that Apple significantly cut prices paid to Wintek.
“’You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,’ said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. ‘If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.’”
“’We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,’ said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. ‘Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.’
“’If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?’ the executive asked.”
What stands out about this are a few things, but what I was immediately struck by while reading this passage was how Apple’s strategy of squeezing suppliers is exactly what Walmart is infamous for doing. Now at least some of the people in Apple are more socially aware than the plunder dogs who own Walmart. As the article points out:
“Some former Apple executives say there is an unresolved tension within the company: executives want to improve conditions within factories, but that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products.”
What was Steve Jobs’ view of this?
“In 2010, Steven P. Jobs discussed the company’s relationships with suppliers at an industry conference.
“’I actually think Apple does one of the best jobs of any companies in our industry, and maybe in any industry, of understanding the working conditions in our supply chain,’ said Mr. Jobs, who was Apple’s chief executive at the time and who died last October.
“’I mean, you go to this place, and, it’s a factory, but, my gosh, I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools, and I mean, for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.’”
Yes, they have these amenities, but what you’ve got here are a few modern conveniences side by side with working and living conditions most similar to the oppressive and inhuman conditions described by Charles Dickens in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution:
“[T]he company’s dorms, where 70,000 Foxconn [which produces 40% of the electronics for all high tech companies in the world] workers lived, at times stuffed 20 people to a three-room apartment, employees said. Last year, a dispute over paychecks set off a riot in one of the dormitories, and workers started throwing bottles, trash cans and flaming paper from their windows, according to witnesses. Two hundred police officers wrestled with workers, arresting eight. Afterward, trash cans were removed, and piles of rubbish — and rodents — became a problem.
“The next year, a Foxconn employee fell or jumped from an apartment building after losing an iPhone prototype. Over the next two years, at least 18 other Foxconn workers attempted suicide or fell from buildings in manners that suggested suicide attempts.”
As I commented in the NY Times thread on their second article, in response to someone who said that American workers would jump at the chance to take jobs like this: Yes, they’re jumping alright. Over the balcony, into the air, and down to the ground to their deaths.
In the 1960s and 1970s in China, before Mao’s death in 1976 and while China was still a socialist country, a fierce struggle went on within the Chinese Communist Party leadership and the entire society over the road forward. There were those such as Deng Xiaoping who asserted that it “doesn’t matter if a cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice” – in other words, those in the Party who are concerned about how things were being done should not worry, capitalist norms for production are just as good as (in fact, better than) socialist norms. This was one expression of the gulf between those in the Party whose real goal was to turn China into an industrial powerhouse along capitalist lines and those such as Mao and The Four who were his closest allies who believed that the revolution would be lost if Deng’s revisionist views were allowed to carry the day. Within hours of Mao’s death, Deng’s allies seized power and arrested The Four, and set about progressively turning China into Deng’s vision. For the first few years after their coup they continued to pretend that those in charge were the true inheritors of Mao and that The Four were secretly the enemies of socialism. Over time, however, they began to shed that pretense as their power was more secure and they began to more and more openly embrace capitalist norms. This led to the elevation of capitalists to the prize spots and the degradation of the working class to the bottom of the heap.
In 1989 arose the famous Chinese Spring Uprising, a popular upsurge of tens of millions of people, most popularly known in the U.S. as Tiananmen, against the unraveling of the Chinese revolution under Deng and his allies. This struggle occurred not only because of the growing inequities in China but also because there had been a revolution in China and there had been socialism for decades, along with mass campaigns (especially the Cultural Revolution) that involved the masses of people to help to train them in seeing the differences between capitalist norms masquerading as socialism (as it existed during Mao’s days) and genuine revolutionary values and policies.
When socialism was the dominant form, those who opposed it had to engage in complicated subterfuge to oppose it, and they arose from within even the highest levels of the CCP itself. Unlike Stalin, who experienced the same problem in the USSR, but who didn’t understand why it was emerging and incorrectly assumed that these people must be counter-revolutionaries in collusion with foreign capitalist powers, using prison and executions to deal with them, Mao grasped that these contradictions were arising because of the material basis that still remains in socialist society for a new group of exploiters to personify these still unequal relations. Mao realized that the way to deal with this was fundamentally two-fold: first, you had to recognize that as long as social inequality exists, that this problem of “capitalist roaders” (those within the Party who wittingly or unwittingly wanted to adopt the capitalist road instead of the socialist road) would exist and you had to progressively work throughout the whole of society to bridge the differences and reduce and eventually eliminate the material basis for capitalism, and two, you needed to raise people’s consciousness throughout the society about the situation so that they could become sophisticated enough themselves to recognize this and progressively become masters of their society. Both of these things meant that you could not combat capitalism through arrests and the actions of the few at the top. You had to raise mass consciousness and you had to over time work to eat up the social inequalities (since you can’t simply declare by fiat that everyone is now equal).
My Masters Essay was on the 1989 Spring Uprising and it is posted in its entirety in multi-parts here.
In Globalization and the Demolition of Society, I write in part about China:
“Under Mao the leading and most celebrated class was the proletariat. They were the heroes of the revolution, path-breakers in transforming China. On the eve of and during the 1989 Spring Uprising, workers articulated their deep dissatisfaction at Deng Xiaoping’s moves to restore capitalism to China:
This government favors every social group except the working class. The so-called “leading class of the society” has been consigned to limbo. Not only has the government not showed any kindness to workers, it has further tried in various ways to abuse us.—Chinese worker, Zoomlens, December 6, 1988
All bosses are the same—they’re only there for making money. God damn it, I’ve worked for thirty years and still have to serve dishes to capitalists! I still do not understand why we have to enter into joint ventures with bosses and that the masters of our country, the workers, have to work for capitalists.
—Restaurant worker, Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, China, 1987
Although the official media still call the working class the leading class of the nation, workers seem to know well that it is nothing but a cliché. For instance, from 1984 to 1987, the NCTU [National Chiao Tung University] conducted a series of surveys in many cities. The results showed that 56 percent of workers thought that the social status of the worker was declining (Xiao & Shi 1989: 18). Workers’ frustration grew even stronger as time went on. A survey of 33 cities . . . in late 1987 found that 71.6 percent of the worker interviewees believed that, rather than being the leading class, the working class was now at the bottom of society, because workers had no political power, no money, and no higher education, the things the [sic] Deng’s regime highly valued. What they can offer is only manual labor, which was less compensated for those days. A more recent survey showed that those who felt that workers’ social status was declining had gone up to 83 percent.[i]
“Today in China the capitalists, both foreign and domestic, are the celebrated and leading class, with the proletariat now consigned to working endlessly for micro-wages under inhuman conditions. A rising tide of violent clashes with authorities numbering at this point in the tens of thousands of incidents annually, along with a rash of suicides and desperate, murderous acts against children by profoundly alienated individuals, have accompanied China’s ‘modernization’ campaign. They make up the seamy underside of the bright, shiny, elegant capitalist toys such as gold-plated Mercedes Benzes and iPhones for the nouveau riche in today’s China.”
The New York Times’ series on China’s principal author states that the only way to deal with Apple’s egregious sweat shops is for consumers to demand that Apple change its ways of doing business. This would help. But the more fundamental issue requires something else because the dirty, pretty things that make up our society will continue to hold true unless and until we upend the existing order.
To be continued.
[i] Dennis Loo, “China 1989 First Installment,” from “Exorcising the Ghost of Mass Political Activism: Deng Xiaoping, Workers, Peasants and the 1989 Spring Uprising,” DennisLoo.blogspot.com, February 5, 2007, http://dennisloo.blogspot.com/2007/02/china-1989-first-installment.html, accessed March 4, 2009.