Exploited workers: why Apple and other companies will not move manufacturing jobs back to the US

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.

White House report on “Women in America”

The White House Council on Women and Girls recently released an 85 page report on “Women in America.” According to the administration, “it is the first comprehensive look at the status of women in America since the Kennedy administration released a similar report in 1963.” There is a lot of interesting data in here. Here are two graphs out of the report:

1. Comparing bachelor’s degrees granted to men and women in 1998 and 2008, by field:

Outside of engineering and computer sciences and mathematics and physical sciences, women are getting more bachelors’ (and master’s) degrees.

2. Unemployment rates by gender, going back to the late 1940s:

 

A shift seems to take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s where it is men who become more affected by recessions than women. This would line up with the loss of manufacturing jobs and the move to a post-Fordist, information-based economy.

 

Cities that are losing population

The list of the top seven American cities in population loss (measured as a percentage of total population) is not surprising: New Orleans, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Rochester (NY). And outside of New Orleans, why these cities have lost population is also not difficult to figure out: a loss of manufacturing jobs.

But a list like this raises some questions about cities:

1. Is it that unusual for cities to lose population? If cities can boom, as these cities did during the industrial boom, why can’t they also go bust?

2. The headline on the article is misleading: “US cities running out of people.” There are still plenty of people in these communities – what is unusual is that the population is declining.

3. Is there a point where these population losses will stabilize? I always wonder this about cities – some people stay because there are still some jobs, particularly medical, municipal, and service jobs available.

4. Is there something the federal government could do to help these communities reverse these trends? Is there a public interest in not letting cities like these slowly die?

5. Measuring the city’s population is perhaps not the best way to go about it. How have the metropolitan populations changed? Are there still people in the region? This would make a difference.

Considering workplace flexibility

Some jobs offer more flexibility than others where a worker has an opportunity to structure their own schedule or make it to other important events in life that are held during typical work hours. Sociologist Alfred Young has looked into the issue of workplace flexibility and recently made a report to a conference:

When an assembly-line worker at a Midwestern auto-parts plant studied by Alford A. Young Jr. , a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, left work without permission to coach his son’s football team in a championship game, he paid a high price, Young told about 200 researchers, government officials and employers Tuesday at a Washington, D.C. conference on flexibility.

The story sprang from a study of the means employees use to resolve work-family conflicts–collaborating with the boss vs. sneaking around. The worker, whom Dr. Young called James, had committed to coaching his son’s team, and when the team made the championship round he asked to take a Saturday afternoon off to be present. The boss said no.

When the day arrived, James left work for lunch and later called his boss to say that his car had broken down, saying “ ‘I called Triple-A but I don’t know if I can make it back,’ ” Young says. James got to coach the game, but he also got written up by his supervisor and busted to a lower seniority level.

Such disruptions can be avoided, Young says, if supervisors bend a little, perhaps even breaking a rule or two, to try to find a solution within the work team, perhaps by allowing a shift trade; this benefits employers by motivating employees to go the extra mile and remain loyal to the company.  While this happens routinely at many workplaces, about 80% of all workers still lack the workplace flexibility they want, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the conference sponsor. What doesn’t work, his study found, allowing to develop the kind of clash that encompassed James.

I feel like a lot of the talk about telecommuting and the changes that might come to the workplace due to changing technology might really be about increasing the flexibility of workers. If the main concern is that a job gets done, perhaps it doesn’t matter as much whether an employee keeps certain office hours. Younger workers also seem to like the idea of flexibility, to not be completely tied down because of a job. But perhaps even the American small business spirit could be tied to this issue – some people enjoy being able to set their own hours and agenda.  But this may not apply in the same way to areas like manufacturing.

If 80% of workers desire more flexibility, is this something more businesses and organizations should address? I would be interested in knowing what holds businesses back from being more flexible with workers. Profits? Appearances? A certain workplace culture? Directives from higher-ups?