You probably missed it, and Apple Computer probably hopes you missed it, especially if you read the news while listening to an iPod, but buried in last February’s business news was a blip about a visit by Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, Tim Cook, to the Foxconn Technology Group factory in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is where Apple manufacturers its iPod. Cook went to Foxconn to look into why 11 workers at the factory committed suicide.
Most of the 11 workers killed themselves by jumping from Foxconn’s high-rise dormitories. To prevent more suicides Apple recommended hiring counselors, opening a care center, and installing nets. Why nets? I presume because working conditions can’t be improved enough to prevent workers from trying, and the best Foxconn can do is catch workers when they try.
Companies like Apple manufacture their products in China because, if you ignore workers’ rights and well-being, manufacturing in an authoritarian police state has distinct advantages. Workers are either docile or unemployed. Their wages are low. Pesky environmental regulations don’t apply. Union organizing is almost unheard of. The state-controlled media doesn’t report about workplace safety violations or worker-management relations because China — but I mentioned this already — is an authoritarian police state.
I believe most Americans who groove to music coming from an iPod would like to groove safely without having to fear whether the people who made the device are prematurely dead, and to that end, I would like to propose a sticker system for imported Chinese electronics similar to the one used to identify fruit and vegetables in the United States.
You can, by examining the sticker on a vegetable or piece of fruit, tell whether it was grown organically (it has a five-numeral code beginning with 9), it was grown conventionally (a four-numeral code), or it was genetically modified (a five-numeral code beginning with 8). The Produce Marketing Association devised this sticker system to speed checkout lines at supermarkets, but shoppers can also use the codes to make better purchasing choices.
Suppose there were a similar sticker system for electronic goods made in China? You could look at the sticker on the back of an electronic device and learn about the conditions under which it was manufactured. A numeral code beginning with 8, say, would mean that workers committed suicide where the device was made; a 9 would mean that working conditions are deplorable and wages extremely low, but no worker had yet succumbed to despair and jumped from his or her high-rose dormitory window; a 7 would mean that factory managers were kind enough to install nets for workers who jump.
You get the idea. In time, the sticker system could help Chinese workers, as American shoppers take into account the working conditions under which Chinese products are made, and factories scramble to improve working conditions in order to satisfy the discriminating American shopper. American shoppers care about Chinese workers, don’t they? That is the real question. American companies aren’t the only ones who are indifferent to the rights and well-being of Chinese workers. The American shopper is too.