What price an iPhone?

In The Twenty-One Bal­loons—one of my all-time favorite child­hood books—a kindly pro­fes­sor attempts to fly across the Pacific by bal­loon but instead crash lands onto the diamond-rich island of Kraka­toa. There, he dis­cov­ers a fan­tas­ti­cal com­mu­nity where, apart from the few oblig­a­tions imposed by a “Restau­rant Gov­ern­ment,” the lucky inhab­i­tants spend their days “try­ing to make life more pleas­ant for our­selves and each other.”

There was a time when this happy vision had much in com­mon with how we imag­ined The Future. With­out giv­ing it too much thought, those of us who grew up watch­ing The Jet­sons and dream­ing of mag­i­cal robots assumed that labor-saving devices would mean more free time for every­one, as we all shared in the ben­e­fits of new technologies.

But that’s not how it’s turned out. Almost with­out notic­ing, we’ve traded our egal­i­tar­ian Jetsons-era paradigm—which inci­den­tally coin­cided with a thriv­ing Amer­i­can mid­dle class—for one that requires ever-more from the world’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble while pil­ing up riches for an ultra-rich and every smaller global elite.

Not con­vinced?

Take a look at the New York Times’ exhaus­tive piece on How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. The story goes like this:  Apple has moved almost all of its man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas because this was its “only option.” The “flex­i­bil­ity, dili­gence and indus­trial skills” that Apple requires are in far greater sup­ply over­seas than among U.S. work­ers. “The speed and flex­i­bil­ity is breath­tak­ing,” one Apple exec­u­tive told the Times.

Who can argue with “speed and flex­i­bil­ity”? Such goals sound rea­son­able enough, right?

But drill down beneath the abstrac­tions, and the facts tell a dif­fer­ent story. What does all this talk of “speed and flex­i­bil­ity” actu­ally mean in prac­tice?  The real­ity is this:

One for­mer exec­u­tive described how the com­pany relied upon a Chi­nese fac­tory to revamp iPhone man­u­fac­tur­ing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forc­ing an assem­bly line over­haul. New screens began arriv­ing at the plant near midnight.

A fore­man imme­di­ately roused 8,000 work­ers inside the company’s dor­mi­to­ries, accord­ing to the exec­u­tive. Each employee was given a bis­cuit and a cup of tea, guided to a work­sta­tion and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fit­ting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was pro­duc­ing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Mean­while,  Apple’s prof­its con­tinue to soar to stratos­pheric lev­els, with the com­pany earn­ing more than $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Gold­man Sachs, Exxon Mobil, or Google, accord­ing to the Times. “Apple shares are up $24.3 bil­lion today. Maybe now they can afford to pay their Chi­nese work­ers more than $1 an hour,” humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted.

But what truly mystifies—and sad­dens me—isn’t the fact that inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions (even Apple!) tend to focus on short-term profit at almost any cost (though even this assump­tion is of fairly recent vin­tage, as New York Times eco­nom­ics reporter Louis Uchitelle explained in The Dis­pos­able Amer­i­can) but rather that so many of us seem to accept this as a mat­ter of course. That so few of us are say­ing: “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me?”

How has this come to pass? It seems to me that, in our anx­i­ety over U.S. com­pet­i­tive­ness, we’ve come to unthink­ingly con­flate two quite dif­fer­ent things:  First, the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion and skills, a legit­i­mate con­cern. Sec­ond, the ques­tion of “dili­gence and flexibility”—words that are all-too-often code for a will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate the sort of work­ing con­di­tions that decades of labor activism and leg­is­la­tion have sought to con­sign to his­tory.  (Thomas L. Friedman’s “Aver­age is Over” col­umn in yesterday’s Times illus­trates this quite nicely.)

You don’t have to look far for evi­dence that Apple’s busi­ness model is toxic.  (While I’m not sug­gest­ing that Apple is alone here, the company’s epic cool fac­tor does make it an espe­cially galling tar­get.) Just today, the Times fol­lowed up its report on Apple’s out­sourc­ing with a piece chill­ingly titled: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” rife with sto­ries of fatal fac­tory explo­sions, sui­cides, rou­tinely dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, and work-related injuries. The “dor­mi­to­ries” where work­ers live? Reporters found up to 20 peo­ple stuffed into a three-room apart­ment.  An audit of Apple’s sup­pli­ers last year found at least half the work­ers at 93 facil­i­ties exceeded the 60-hours-a-week limit estab­lished in Apple’s own sup­plier code of conduct.

And the ratio­nale for this fren­zied activ­ity and human suf­fer­ing? Push­ing iPhones into the world more quickly and in larger num­bers, respond­ing to our rapa­cious cries for more Angry Birds and Siri. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 peo­ple overnight and con­vince them to live in dorms?” Apple’s Jen­nifer Rigoni rhetor­i­cally asked the Times.

As an iPhone owner I have this to say: I would have been will­ing to wait.

© 2012, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “What price an iPhone?

  1. Amy

    I have been hear­ing about the poor work­ing con­di­tions and cramped quar­ters at Apple for a while.(I told Heidi about it some time ago) While it is indeed a shame, I’m not sure Sam­sung or Motorola are any bet­ter. I think it would take a lot more guilt from con­sumers to give up their i gad­gets. Some­times I won­der if that shirt I’m wear­ing, or the hat on my head was made in a fac­tory that treats its employ­ees fairly. I think if the Apple plant were to move here, it would def­i­nitely cost them more money, and cor­po­ra­tions are in it for the money. I know that peo­ple idol­ized Steve Jobs for his inno­v­a­tive ideas and busi­ness sense, giv­ing us all what we want, but just know­ing about the Apple plant’s work­ers and work­ing con­di­tions, he wasn’t much bet­ter than any other greedy cor­po­rate CEO. i enjoyed your arti­cle but now i need to make a call on my i phone and then i am going on the i mac to look up an i recipe. Shame on i, i mean me.

    • Thanks for read­ing and com­ment­ing, Steve. While I’m sure you’re right that at least some of these issues are shared by other tech com­pa­nies, I think the NYT made the right call in focus­ing on Apple (for rea­sons I’ll go into in a future post). It will be inter­est­ing to see how this saga plays out. I, of course, can’t speak for con­sumers gen­er­ally, but I’ve put my own plans to buy an iPad on indef­i­nite hold–was plan­ning to make the pur­chase in the next cou­ple weeks. The dis­clo­sures have also changed my rela­tion­ship to my iPhone, which, in light of what’s come out, I think is a good thing.
      amy gut­man recently posted…Preschool wis­dom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)My Profile

  2. This is a fab­u­lous piece. Comes as I’m con­tem­plat­ing join­ing the cool kids and get­ting an i-phone. Oh how we hate to be con­fronted head-on with the truths we sus­pect about the speedy toys we’ve come to think we can’t live with­out. What do we do now that we know? Given we did noth­ing when we only sus­pected? Is any­one will­ing to give up the “speed and flex­i­bil­ity” these devices afford us?
    Aviva Rubin recently posted…I know an old lady who swal­lowed a fly…My Profile

    • Thank you so much, Aviva. You know, I don’t really think it needs to be–or rather, should need to be–a choice (iPhone vs. no iPhone). What humane work­ing con­di­tions would mean is a higher price point, slower sup­ply chain, and, yes, some­what reduced prof­its for Apple share­hold­ers. Accord­ing to the Times, there are esti­mates that pay­ing Amer­i­can wages would add about $65 per phone. (Many of the Chi­nese work­ers are mak­ing around $17/day).
      amy gut­man recently posted…Preschool wis­dom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)My Profile

      • Just won­dered if you’d had a chance to lis­ten to the This Amer­i­can life piece on apple in China? It’s so com­pli­cated and wage is just one fac­tor. And despite how hor­rific it is lib­eral econ­o­mists make the argu­ment that it’s far bet­ter than con­di­tions before these fac­to­ries existed. Is it a phase they will move through to bet­ter things like we in the west once did? What can indi­vid­u­als do to change the prac­tices of the com­pa­nies from whom we are unlikely to stop buy­ing? I’ve thought a lot about the place of activism, con­sumer and other, in the crazy, pre­oc­cu­pied lives we live.
        Aviva Rubin recently posted…Just because there’s noth­ing to write doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write itMy Profile

        • Thanks, Aviva–another friend also pointed me towards this. (I gather the same writer/performer also did a the­ater piece draw­ing on the same mate­r­ial.) I’m plan­ning to lis­ten this week; will also be doing another Apple post.

          As for what comes next, I tend to be less recep­tive than many to long-term util­i­tar­ian argu­ments. That being said, as with so many things, rea­son­able minds are likely to dif­fer on the “right” answers. (Though I, of course, think mine are “right.” ;-) )
          amy gut­man recently posted…Life Exper­i­ment #2: Cre­at­ing OrderMy Profile

  3. Wow, Amy! That made me want to get rid of my Iphone and Ipad and every other “i” owned around here! I had no idea, but hon­estly, I didn’t even con­sider it. I feel ashamed, despite my ingo­rance. I would not have bought one had I known.

  4. Amy, you are almost alarm­ingly swift and pre­cise in your response to this report­ing. That all of these rev­e­la­tions are news is the shock­ing part. We should have all known ages ago that this dystopia was what brought our beloved gad­gets to life.

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