The Wheel: What Is The Foxconn Debate Really About?

Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
Clay is moulded into a vessel;
Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
Walls are built around a hearth;
Because of the doors we may use the house.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not.
– Tao De Ching

There’s a carousel in a small Cape Cod town that we visited this summer and the kids rode it a few times. The carousel is quite old and quite handsome and it makes a great diversion of an evening. I’m reminded now of trying to take pictures of the kids while they rode the carousel. For a while I’d wave and try to get their attention as they roared past, their laughter dopplering around the edge of the curve, and then, after four or five tries I’d give up and just watch. It’s a wheel, an endless circle, designed to delight and enthuse and distract.

Reading the recent back and forth between Stephen Fry – an Apple apologist – and Mike Daisey – an Apple user/abuser – I’m reminded of that carousel. The gist is this: Mike Daisey woke up the NPR-listening world with his long piece of Foxconn for This American Life. It was a great piece – dramatic, educational, and eye-opening – but it’s definitely nothing we haven’t seen before. Some could say that it was The Jungle of Chinese manufacturing, a tell-all with just enough outrage to make us rethink a great horror. But the problem is this: Daisey is an actor and knows how to bring out the story, just as John Steinbeck was a writer and knew how to populate the Dust Bowl with Christ figures. That doesn’t make the story less effective – it makes it more so – but it does make the story less true.

The problem is the endless circle of blame and apology. Daisey is correct in many of his assumptions, but offers a way forward that is currently unenforceable. But if you argue against Daisey’s points, you’re an apologist. But, as Paul Krugman writes:

Such moral outrage is common among the opponents of globalization — of the transfer of technology and capital from high-wage to low-wage countries and the resulting growth of labor-intensive Third World exports. These critics take it as a given that anyone with a good word for this process is naive or corrupt and, in either case, a de facto agent of global capital in its oppression of workers here and abroad.

We keep going over the same ground here. The argument can be delineated like this: Foxconn is an evil sweatshop. Apple is a huge Foxconn customer. They should change things. Two of those things are true, a third is false.

To be clear, I’m with the crowd that says that Apple is, at best, ignorant of Foxconn’s problems and at worst ignoring them. I agree things must change and Apple is in a great position to do it. But I don’t agree with the first point. I’ve seen sweat shops and Foxconn is a factory. If many of the major brands (I recall that Ford was a customer at one factory I visited) knew that their promotional USB keys were made in a building that looked like a gulag, they’d be skewered. Here’s hoping they are, one day. However, Daisey’s Foxconn story – written outside of the factory – and my own research, written inside the factory – don’t jibe. His discoveries that people get sick or are injured in factories are naive and I suspect his sample size of employees who approached him is far smaller than we realize. To go into the Foxconn factory is to see a place staffed by college-age kids and engineers who work 10 or so hours a day building electronics. There is no great Dickensian work house nor are there sad-eyed madonnas of the assembly line chained to the soldering irons. This isn’t the mundanity of evil – this is just mundanity.

Nor am I saying that Daisey’s interviewees are malingerers with an axe to grind. I’m sure their lives are ruined or much harder thanks to Foxconn. The value of Daisey’s efforts is his ability to give these people a voice in an environment that would normally quash that voice. He’s doing what artists must do – reflecting a time and place through his own lens.

My own opinion is simple: Apple needs to do more for the people in its manufacturing chain. I will not pretend that Apple can simply wave a magic wand and make every Foxconn employee rich and happy, but it has the cash and the wherewithal to further disrupt the Chinese supply chain and improve the lot of Foxconn’s employees. But I also agree with what one Gawker commenter said: “I believe Tim Cook will do more good for those employees (and already has, in point of fact) than Mike Daisey ever will.” Apple on the aggregate couldn’t care less about our existence nor does it deserve our undying respect and admiration. On an personal level there are plenty of folks inside Apple working and worrying about worker’s rights in China, but as an entity we are talking supply chains and price management. Apple makes excellent tools for our digital age, that’s it. To defend or excoriate the company is like screaming into the wind. However, through their constant rejiggering and improvements, they have essentially created a Western, ISO-compliant factory environment in a corporate culture that used to force underperforming employees to stand outside wearing a sign that said “I am a bad worker.”

What Daisey did is made us think. Did he do it the right way, using the right tools? Absolutely not. Will he improve the lot of the workers he interviewed? I doubt it. But will his efforts – and the efforts of many who came before him – help bring the Chinese worker out of penury? Sure, eventually.

I opened this piece talking about a carousel in Cape Cod, a delightfully bourgeois setting for a piece on poverty wage labor practices. I get to go to Cape Cod and put my kids on a carousel because my job involves dicking around on the Internet all day (I suspect Daisey’s does too). My one wish is that every Foxconn employee, at some point in their lives, will be able to sit down to an unhurried meal, chat with family, and maybe ride a carousel. I think it’s in Foxconn’s best interests to ensure that that happens – and soon – and I think that we’re nearly there. Things will get better, I’m sure of it, and I also feel that they already have.