This week is the big Consumer Electronics Show -- and, like many in the tech field, I'm here in Las Vegas exploring the various gadgets that are coming out. Many (some might say most, though I'm not sure that's true) of the gadgets here are made in China. So it's interesting timing that the always excellent radio program This American Life
chose this particular week to run its episode on what happens in the electronics factories in Shenzen, China
. Most of the episode involves a rather gripping story from storyteller Mike Daisey (who first came to fame almost exactly a decade ago
talking about his life working at Amazon.com). Daisey's latest one-man show is all about Apple and Steve Jobs -- and this segment was adapted from a part of that show. The second act of the show involves This American Life
host Ira Glass, looking to fact check many of the claims that Daisey makes -- many of which do, in fact, seem to check out. Of course, the two biggest companies at the center of the story -- Apple and the infamous Foxconn -- refuse to take part. The whole thing is worth listening to, in part because Daisey really is a fantastic storyteller (something I didn't think was true a decade ago, but as I think he's gotten progressively better over the years).
While I won't go into all of the details of the story, there were two separate points that I found especially interesting. The first was what maybe seemed like a minor aside in Daisey's monologue: that almost all the work done in these factories is done by hand. He noted that, in his imagination, if he ever really thought about these plants, he imagined them being like the robotic Japanese auto plants he'd seen videos about years ago -- only the robots would be smaller, since the gadgets are smaller than cars. But, the truth is that everything is done by hand -- and that's, in part, because labor is so ridiculously cheap in China. And then he notes that we always hear people who decry the fact that everything is mass produced by these machines, and clamor for handmade products
. And he notes that, perhaps, we don't
really want handmade products -- because all these gadgets really are
handmade, and it's not a pleasant experience.
The second point, however, goes in a different direction. It comes during the "fact check" portion of the show, in which multiple observers -- including Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof -- note that, for as bad as the factories may seem relative to what we have today in the US, the conditions and opportunities are significantly better
than where those workers came from. Furthermore, another commentator notes, over the last few years, conditions at these plants has
been improving -- and it isn't necessarily because of pressure from companies or the government instituting any kind of labor reforms. It is, instead, because competition for workers has increased -- and turnover is massive
: in some cases upwards of 20% per month
. That's an insane level of turnover -- and a costly one. Even in a "sweatshop" type setting, the costs of replacing a worker can be high, and the end result is that these companies do have incentives to improve, and to offer a better deal and better conditions in factories. None of this is to excuse the dangerous working conditions (in some cases easily avoidable), the physical neglect of employees, or the occasional employment of under-age workers. But it does make you wonder what the "solution" to all of this would be. Daisey says the answer is labor standards -- and that may very well be a workable solution. But it might also mean that some of the workers, who start from the same place as those who were able to build themselves up from incredibly poor to a form of middle class, might never get that chance.
It's a situation where there certainly aren't easy answers. Personally, I think that if there were more transparency
(and perhaps shows like this one can help), that could drive social pressure to improve the worst of the worst working conditions, as companies should be reasonably ashamed for abusing their employees'. And that level of transparency itself can come from social pressure. Indeed, while Apple and Foxconn refused to take part in the show, Apple (at least) has been continuously pressured to be more transparent about these things, and (as the episode notes) in some ways it does do a lot more than other companies -- though many would argue not nearly enough. In the end, hopefully pressure both from competitive forces for workers along with public pressure to stop horrible treatment can lead to a situation where the conditions in these factories really do significantly improve. And maybe, in the end, that actually does lead to more automation, and the miniaturized robotic automobile factories Daisey imagined. And then people can really complain about a lack of handmade goods. But, it might just be better for the employees themselves in the long run.