Exporting Poor Work Environments

After a long time of suc­cess­fully man­aging to avoid the blog, I even­tu­ally clicked this past week when I was sent Fake Steve Jobs’ reac­tion to the news that an employ­ee of Fox­conn, one of Apple’s Chinese ‘man­u­fac­tur­ing part­ners’, com­mit­ted sui­cide shortly after report­ing a miss­ing iPhone v4 pro­to­type.

We can­’t make these products in the United States. Nobody could afford to buy them if we did. And, frankly, the qual­ity would be about half what we get out of China. […]

We all know that there’s no fuck­ing way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refri­ger­at­ors and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re pay­ing for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and every­one gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused—what we’re talk­ing about here is our way of life. Our stand­ard of liv­ing. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of mil­lions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can­’t even begin to ima­gine them, people who will do any­thing to get a life that is a tiny bit bet­ter than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

You know that, and I know that. Okay? Let’s just be hon­est here.

It reminds me some­what of Jared Dia­mond’s Col­lapse, spe­cific­ally where he dis­cusses how “[China and Japan con­serve their] own forests by export­ing defor­est­a­tion to oth­er coun­tries, sev­er­al of which (includ­ing Malay­sia, Pap­ua New Guinea, and Aus­tralia) have already reached or are on the road to cata­stroph­ic defor­est­a­tion” (emphas­is mine).

Now, are first world coun­tries like the U.S. and those of West­ern Europe not just export­ing poor work envir­on­ment stand­ards to the second world coun­tries of Indone­sia, Malay­sia and China (as a con­sequence of large-scale, inex­pens­ive man­u­fac­tur­ing that we no longer can/want to under­take)?

5 thoughts on “Exporting Poor Work Environments

  1. James

    I’m not sure I agree with your ana­logy with defor­est­a­tion. One deals with renew­able assets (renew­able with the prop­er invest­ments and upkeep), while the oth­er deals with work pro­cesses and cul­ture.

  2. Scott

    I’ve always thought that the best trad­ing policy for the US is to push for labor rights and envir­on­ment­al stand­ards for any com­pany that exports to the US. It’s both mor­ally the right thing to do, and a big eco­nom­ic boost to both trad­ing part­ners.

  3. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    Quite right, the ana­logy between the destruc­tion of what should be a renew­able asset and these cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences is quite strained, but I was allud­ing more to the export­ing of ‘prob­lems’ in gen­er­al (cul­tur­al, envir­on­ment­al, etc.).

    More than that, I mean that instead of one coun­try tack­ling a con­ten­tious issue and the gov­ern­ment then hav­ing to force this upon it’s cit­izens, they simply export the prob­lem by out­sourcing the source.

    So first world coun­tries, instead of tak­ing the lead on the issue and fix­ing their own man­u­fac­tur­ing bases, we simply export man­u­fac­tur­ing so oth­er coun­tries have to deal with the col­lat­er­al dam­age. That is the ana­logy I was draw­ing, and I think it is quite gen­er­al.

  4. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    I agree fully.

    I guess the prob­lem is an eco­nom­ics one: the ROI for a com­pany push­ing for labour rights and envir­on­ment­al stand­ards is very low to start and is extremely intan­gible. If this is then det­ri­ment­al to the com­pany’s bot­tom line the share­hold­ers have a right to sue (like when Henry Ford was sued by his share­hold­ers for rais­ing his work­ers’ min­im­um wage to $5 /hour).

    Anoth­er con­sid­er­a­tion, even if this wer­en’t the case, is that the bene­fits of improved rights and stand­ards are seen great­er at the end of the man­u­fac­tur­ing line, in the third world coun­tries. The psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­tance between those decid­ing com­pany policy and where the prob­lem is greatest is a cause for inac­tion. If it’ll make no dif­fer­ence to those decid­ing policy, why change? Espe­cially if it could make life dif­fi­cult in the short term.

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