False Alarm: Why The Apple/Foxconn Debacle Clouds The Real Manufacturing Mess

I was walking home last week and the entire street – and some of the sidewalk – was blocked by large fire trucks and a gaggle of firemen in full regalia. The ladder truck was already planted firmly on the asphalt, ready to send a stream of water soaring over nearby apartment buildings and more trucks were coming, clogging the one-way street further.

Convinced I was about to see an inferno, I tentatively crossed the street. I assumed I’d be stopped and turned away. Instead, the firemen joked and jostled on the sidewalk and I saw a contractor arguing with someone I assumed to be a building resident. The contractor must have been welding – you could still smell the flux and the smoke – and the resident was clearly concerned.

“I was working,” yelled the contractor.

“I was worried,” said the resident.

I bring this story up because that block is now faced with a dilemma. It’s good that the fire was averted by beagle-nosed residents and it’s bad in that it tied up an entire fire department for an hour while a miscommunication was sorted out. The next time the resident won’t be so quick to phone the fire brigade and the contractor will do a better job of hiding the smoke.

That’s what’s about to happen at Foxconn.

Tim Cook just announced that a blue ribbon panel of fair labor experts will tour the grounds at Foxconn City where they will see all the horrors I saw a few months ago: a huge rice cooker big enough to feed 400,000 people, cramped but not squalid dorms, a handsome cybercafe with couples’ booths, and pools where exhausted line workers can enjoy a few laps before slumping into their loft beds.

What they won’t see are disfigured workers toiling in Dickensian sweatshops, infants crawling through metal stamping machines, and workers chained to their stations until the millionth widget is shipped or they die of exhaustion. Why? Because Foxconn has been working with major manufacturers for long enough to know what they expect and they’ve seen enough European and American plants to know that squalid conditions beget squalid paychecks.

The FLA, without a doubt, will return with a report citing a few underage workers, the recommendation to build bigger dorms, and an overall rating of, say B- in terms of safety and worker quality-of-life. It’s not perfect, they’ll say, but it’s not horrible, especially when compared to garment shops.

What will happen next? Apple will announce an all clear, the FLA will be less likely to attack Apple on rights violations, and Foxconn (and, more importantly, its competitors) will go back to business as usual. And we’ll forget about this whole thing, our fingers worrying our Foxconn-made iPhones like a set of prayer beads.

Then, quietly, the factories that are really running under horrible conditions, hiring workers without checking the particulars, and offering conditions that I wouldn’t wish on any man, woman, or child, will go back to churning out smoke, albeit with a bit more secrecy. By focusing on the biggest Chinese (actually Taiwanese) manufacturer, we inspect the canopy of the tree while ignoring the disease-infested trunk.

If you want to know what is happening in China, listen to this. It tells the story of a mill town South Carolina, Greenville, that has evolved, just as Foxconn is evolving. Back in its heyday the bars were buckets of blood, youngsters quit school at sixteen and clocked in for a great paycheck, and many lived far more comfortably than their agrarian fore-bearers. Now that mill town is shutting down, the last bar housing a pair of jokers who used to travel the world on a factory paycheck, and the real industry is down the road in clean, high-tech buildings where there are a hundred robots per human making widgets no 16-year-old drop-out could piece together, let alone understand.

In the end, Greenville died and was reborn. So, too, will Shenzhen. The good companies in China, for years, supplied a better life for countless post-agrarian workers. They were not drafted into service. Instead, they walked up to the gates and applied for a job. Children were not pulled from their cribs to work in the darkness and noise, they were told they’d have a better life if they sat in chairs and assembled cellphones for fat Americans. This hand-waving by Apple won’t make the bad factories go away and it will encourage the good factories to automate much more. Why hire 400,000 complainers when you can hire 1,000 Chinese PhDs to run the line? Follow the arc of manufacturing in the US and you’ll see the same arc repeated in Shenzhen.

I’m not here to defend Apple or Foxconn nor am I about to sing folksongs about the exploited, migrant electronics assemblers. This is about economics. China’s economy is booming, their unemployment rate was near 4.1% in 2010 (ours is 8.3% now and 9.1% in 2010), and what Shenzhen makes, the world takes. Apple doesn’t like negative publicity, so they’re sending a third party to pick up some talking points and when that third party comes back, all smiles, we’ll forget about real sweatshops in real places. Focusing on two huge companies in the pantheon of Asian manufacturing is like sending the entire firehouse after a little smoke. The real fires go right on blazing while the contractor gesticulates on the sidewalk, yelling “I was working. I was working.”

[Image: Inga Nielsen/Shutterstock]