The New York Times has a long piece examining why Apple, even with the pleas of President Obama, will not likely move manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It sounds like it has a lot to do with what Apple can ask of workers in China. Here are a few examples:
Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day…
The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn’s work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day. When one Apple executive arrived during a shift change, his car was stuck in a river of employees streaming past. “The scale is unimaginable,” he said…
In mid-2007, after a month of experimentation, Apple’s engineers finally perfected a method for cutting strengthened glass so it could be used in the iPhone’s screen. The first truckloads of cut glass arrived at Foxconn City in the dead of night, according to the former Apple executive. That’s when managers woke thousands of workers, who crawled into their uniforms — white and black shirts for men, red for women — and quickly lined up to assemble, by hand, the phones. Within three months, Apple had sold one million iPhones. Since then, Foxconn has assembled over 200 million more.
This sounds ripe for a Marxist explanation: Apple has its products overseas because it can ask things of workers (possibly interpreted as “exploiting” these workers) that would be very difficult to ask of workers in the United States. American workers would not be happy about multiple things: non-predictable work hours, living in company dormitories, relatively low pay compared to wages in the first-world, consistent twelve hour days.
When I first read these descriptions, it immediately reminded of manufacturing in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was a period marked by labor unrest, the rise of unions, and a change in a lot of laws about what companies could ask of employees. We’ve had company towns; think of Pullman on the south side of Chicago. We’ve had bad working conditions; think the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. We’ve had low wages; now we have a minimum wage (that some would argue is still not enough and should be replaced by a living wage). With the protests of workers plus a growing prosperity, work conditions changed. Is China close to a similar period or does a different governmental approach and different culture make is less feasible? As Marx suggested, will the basics of capitalism help turn these workers against the system, pushing companies to look for workers in other countries?
The article hints at this but I think it could be put more clearly: there are not easy answers to this issue. If manufacturing jobs will not return to the US except in certain circumstances (see the recent battle over Boeing plants being located in right-to-work states), we need a clear discussion of this rather than politicians saying nice things.