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Should we feel bad about working conditions at FoxConn?

March 20, 2012

Lost in the uproar over Mike Daisey’s significant fabrications about Chinese working conditions is what Ira Glass calls the “normative question underlying all the reporting… as somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad?” As I’ve stated before — and as the New York Times’ own investigative report showed — the story about working conditions at Apple suppliers is essentially true. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether any of this is acceptable, keeping in mind that, a century ago, working conditions in America were equally if not more harsh. Let me view this whole episode through the lens of another product that’s just as valuable to New Yorkers as smartphones: the subway system.

The first underground subway line in New York City, from City Hall station in Manhattan to Bailey Ave. in the Bronx, was constructed in just four years, between 1900-1904. (By comparison, the Second Avenue subway started construction in 2007 and only the first segment, from 63rd St. to 96th St., will be completed by 2016.) Much of the tunneling work was performed by hand, in extremely dangerous conditions. Rock slides from dynamite explosions, tunnel flooding, and silicosis from inhaling rock dust were all occupational hazards. Photos from the time show men digging and blasting with no safety equipment whatsoever. Worst off were the sandhogs, men who worked at the face of the excavation. They worked two shifts of three hours each, with a two-to-three hour break in between, underground in 100 degree heat, and sometimes under atmospheric pressures of 100 psi. Moreover, racist stereotypes of the day meant that blacks were often sent to work as sandhogs; it was felt that being from Africa, they were more accustomed to the heat and humidity.

Living conditions were atrocious as well, making FoxConn’s dormitories seem tame by comparison. The New York Transit Museum‘s exhibit on subway construction stated that,

Most families shared their quarters with boarders. Conditions were wretched: tenants had to fetch water from a hydrant in the yard, outhouses reeked with filth, and animals shared cellars with people. The word ‘tenement’ became synonymous with the word ‘slum’.

In the intervening years, we in America have decided that such harsh conditions are no longer acceptable. We’ve enacted laws to ensure that such conditions will no longer be inflicted on Americans. That’s why it will take over a quarter century to build the full Second Avenue subway: because we now believe in safety, reasonable working conditions, and, of course, consultative urban planning. But back to the case of Apple products: if we, as an “developed” nation have the power to choose how our products — products that we invented — are manufactured, why would we instead export the harsh working conditions instead of that standard of life?

I think I know the answer, and it’s an uncomfortable one. We’re happy to exploit others when we don’t see them as ourselves. Whether that be Chinese migrant workers, or Lower East Side immigrants slaving away on the subways at the turn of the 20th century, it’s easier to justify turning a blind eye when you can reap the rewards without being the one getting your hands dirty.

There’s a subtle warning in here, though. America’s economic star is setting and China’s is rising. Will we still be so blasé about labor conditions when, in 25 years, we are the ones manufacturing electronic devices for middle-class and upper-middle-class Chinese consumers?