Don't cry for the workers at Foxconn

I’ve been interested in gadget manufacturing for a while now and, as I reported a few months ago, things are pretty bad but they’ve been worse. Now, however, we’re seeing clusters of suicides at Foxconn as well as an undercover “report” from Foxconn’s “Hell Factory.” I’m calling bull.

First, consider that Foxconn has 400,000 employees in Shenzhen alone. Cleveland, Ohio has 478,403 residents as of the 2000 census and I suspect that’s gone down. You’re not amazed by the number of suicides in Cleveland, right? It’s par for the course. People go nuts in Cleveland, even though they have a great meat market and the Cleveland Clinic is really nice. People don’t want to live, sometimes, right?

As for working conditions – the dead eyes, the exhausted employees, the beatings – well, that happens in Cleveland, too. When a mass of humanity coalesces into one place all sorts of things happen. People get tired. People die. People are abused. People abuse.

Look: we built Foxconn. Sure, Taiwan built the factory proper, but we build the demand. We want free feature phones and we want them now. We want $500 laptops. We want 60-inch TVs for $999. We want, we want, and we want. Steve Jobs isn’t standing on a table with a whip, exhorting these employees to apply the ceramic back to the iPhone HD more quickly. These people, as many reporters better than I note, (read Factory Girlsand Country Driving) need these jobs and they do everything we do to get a better deal. Foxconn is successful because it can mobilize an army to manufacture your cellphone. But China is changing and they won’t be able to pull many more shenanigans. The workers are gaining power and when that happens, watch out.

Manufacturing is a shitty business. It really is. Every factory I’ve visited, from fine watch factories in the mountains of Germany to a place where they make promotional USB keys, is soul-taking and deadening. Those who lament that manufacturing jobs have left the US never worked in manufacturing. Ten out ten college graduates don’t want to sit and solder 5,000 USB connectors to 5,000 PCB boards a day. Heck, we can’t even get Americans to work in slaughterhouses.

But the factory gives the employees a living wage, offers them respite from the poverty and strictures of the countryside, and creates the potential for advancement. They didn’t have that before they walked through the factory gates.

We used to manufacture things in America until we got smart. Then we sent manufacturing further and further afield and, I would wager, none of us understand the true nature of manufacturing. Two generations have gone by since the last real steel barons led the world in production and we look back on those days with nostalgia. My grandfather Herman worked in the Wheeling Steel plant. They lived in company housing, ate company food, and lived a company life until they made a little money and moved into town. I doubt he was fulfilled, but it was a job. His step-son, my father, graduated from college and went to work for the government at a warehouse – one step away from manufacturing. Now I, his coddled son, get to dick around on the Internet all day. Give the Chinese another fifty years and they’ll have shipped all their manufacturing to Mars and they’ll dick around on the Internet as well.

Go ahead: Cry for the folks at Foxconn. Rail against the injustice. But if you follow the money, you’ll realize the injustice stems from our desire to have more in more ways. So much crap comes out of China it boggles the mind. But someone is buying that crap. Someone, somewhere, is taking what China makes and they’re taking it every second of every day.

Our neophilia knows no limits. The Evo 4G just came out today. Hoopty doo. It’s another phone that was built by another person on an assembly line in China. Want to know why more amazing stuff doesn’t leak out of Foxconn? Because the employees don’t care. A phone is a phone is a phone and they can’t afford a new one anyway.

I always say this: vote with your dollar. Don’t upgrade your phones every five months. Don’t throw away your old PC. Work with what you have. There is no sane reason for a laptop to cost under $300. But they exist. Manufacturers figured out that people who see devices as disposable will buy more and more of them. Do research, buy what you think is best, and hold onto it. Then Foxconn can shut down.

Then what happens to those 400,000 people? I don’t know, but we’d better be ready for them because they kicked our ass in manufacturing and they’re about to kick our ass in everything else as well.