By Staff Editors
Technology made in China has a bad reputation overseas because it is often believed to be of poor quality. And foreign factories operating in China also are held in low esteem because they are believed to be exploiting lowly Chinese workers. A breaking story from a British newspaper about Apple Computer's factories in China does nothing to diminish either of these prejudices.
Britain's Mail on Sunday newspaper last week said that workers in Chinese factories that produce the popular iPod are poorly paid and not allowed access to outsiders. The paper also says the factories are not directly owned by Apple, but are instead run by Foxconn. Either way, the paper suggests, and we agree, that Apple is ultimately responsible for what happens at the factories that manufacture its goods.
Macworld UK says of the original Mail on Sunday article (which is not published online, but you wouldn't know that based on the large amount of people chatting about it on the Web):
"The report claims Longhua's workers live in dormitories that house 100 people, and that visitors from the outside world are not permitted. Workers toil for 15-hours a day to make the iconic music player, the report claims. They earn 27 [British pounds] per month. The report reveals that the iPod nano is made in a five-storey factory that is secured by police officers. Another factory in Suzhou, Shanghai, makes iPod shuffles. The workers are housed outside the plant, and earn 54 [British pounds] per month – but they must pay for their accommodation and food, "which takes up half their salaries", the report observes."
In response to the article, Apple says it, "does not tolerate any violations of its supplier code of conduct which are posted online."
We're no fans of big corporations bullying workers. But we are also no friend to shoddy, sensationalist journalism. This article smacks of hyperbolic journalism in an almost "laowai/nongmin jin cheng" sort of way.
Workers live in dormitories? Good for them. I've worked in the offices of Chinese companies that also give white-collar workers dormitories–and they provide showers.
Visitors are not permitted into the factory? Since when were you able to tiptoe around the vats of beer at Anheuser-Busch's brewery in Williamsburg, Virginia? Or when was the last time you showed up at Microsoft's compound unannounced in Redmond and expected the royal treatment?
And the workers toil in "a five-storey factory that is secured by police officers"? Is that to keep the workers inside or the hoi polloi outside? Maybe they are police officers, but chances are good the journalist made a common "laowai" mistake and assumed that the "bao'an", or rent-a-cop security officers, were instead "jingcha", or official police.
27 British pounds per month is the price of a few pints for you and your friends in an English pub, right? However if the workers did not have to pay for the dormitory, that is a decent, albeit low, wage. The journalist should instead wonder why the buying parity of Chinese and Britons is so lopsided and ask Apple to reduce its high-priced iPod devices. Put this in perspective: a decent 512mb MP3 player in China costs US$35, while the same sort of device in the United States can cost US$110. Yet a McDonald's Big Mac in China costs about US$1.50 while the same dead cow sandwich costs US$2.50. I'm no Myron Scholes, but the differences in the ratios shows you that you can not make a valid argument between China and Britain based on the buying power of British money in Britain.
Corporate social responsibility is important to any company operating in China. But the same type of ethics extend to newspapers who wish to antagonize for no other reason than to attract eyeballs. It should be the newspaper's job to promote good fact-finding and sources. One of the journalist's sources for the article was a security guard outside the factory who said mostly women worked at the company because, "they are more honest than male workers". Thank goodness we had such an authoritative figure to let us know about the machinations at the factory.
If we sound like apologists for Apple, let's say we have never bought into their iPod fad and think they will always be a we-had-a-large-market-share-in-the-eighties company. And if we sound like an apologist for China, let us state that there's nothing better than waking each morning and looking at our foreign passports.
But what we do not like is ignorance, and poorly researched sensationalist articles do nothing to make the world a better place. If Apple does terrorize its workers, give us better reasons to believe. And if they don't, the journalist should be fired and the paper should apologize to the security guard for interrupting his nap time.