Meet China’s Factory Workers

Foxconn’s rush to meet anticipated demand for the new iPhone 5 has produced fresh stories of abusive conditions in its Chinese factories. Students were allegedly forced to take unpaid internships on assembly lines, while an undercover reporter for the Shanghai Evening Post reported intense pressure, a frantic work pace and oppressive secrecy. (Despite all this and the now traditional exclamations of disappointment with the new device, Apple sold out of its existing inventory within an hour after pre-orders opened on Friday.) On the day of the announcement, moreover, a worker apparently killed himself, recalling a string of earlier suicides. Apple rival Samsung, too, has recently stumbled into controversy over labour abuses at its own Chinese factories.

Also on Wednesday, TED posted a talk filmed in June by Leslie T. Chang, author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. In it, she argued that Western consumers’ guilt over Chinese factory conditions is beside the point, if not outright patronising:

We, the beneficiaries of globalization seem to exploit these victims with every purchase we make, and the injustice feels embedded in these products themselves. After all, what’s wrong with a world in which a worker on an iPhone assembly line can’t even afford to buy one? It’s taken for granted that Chinese factories are oppressive, and that it’s our desire for cheap goods that makes them so. So this simple narrative equating Western demand and Chinese suffering is appealing, especially at a time when many of us already feel guilty about our impact on the world. But it’s also inaccurate and disrespectful. We must be peculiarly self-obsessed to imagine that we have the power to drive tens of millions of people on the other side of the world to migrate and suffer in such terrible ways.

[…] By focusing so much on ourselves and our gadgets, we have rendered the individuals on the other ends into invisibility, as tiny and interchangeable as the parts of a mobile phone. Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods. They choose to leave their homes in order to earn money, to learn new skills, and to see the world. In the ongoing debate about globalisation what’s been missing is the voices of the workers themselves. Here are a few.

Chang’s talk echoes an article she wrote for the New Yorker in March, following This American Life’s retraction of an episode about worker abuses at Foxconn. (For other reactions, see CDT’s round-up.) “Should you feel bad?” she concluded. “I don’t think so. But whether you do or not is peripheral to a much larger and more important story.”