I’m a fan of Apple. Even during that bad time when Steve Jobs was at Next, I kept buying Apple products, and was very satisfied with how they worked, even though I knew that there were Windows machines that were, back then, even better.
I never expected the company to become what it is today: The world’s largest and most successful multinational corporation; or to see a major debate about the assembly line workers who put together Apple’s products.
In January my friends started making comments about the working conditions at Apple’s manufacturing operations in China. I was told my new iPhone was made by exploited labourers in a totalitarian state. Same for my iPad and iMac and all those iPods I’d bought in the last few years.
Mostly they were reacting to stories in The New York Times that focused on Apple and its suppliers, particularly Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm that has a huge factory complex on the Chinese mainland. They raised concerns about excessive overtime, accidents and a cluster of suicides.
As I read those stories my first reaction was to remember my own experiences back when I started working for Chrysler in Windsor. The young Chinese workers of today are a lot like my fellow new hires in the 1970s. We wanted to work as much overtime as we could, and pile up the earnings until we could move on to something more enjoyable and less physically demanding. Few of us wanted to make a career of it.
Around the time I bought my house I was working at the engine plant, which was running three shifts around the clock. I’d put in an 8 hour shift and then stay or come back for an extra four hours of overtime. On Saturdays and Sundays I almost always worked double shifts. One Labour Day Weekend I worked three doubles in a row.
Like the Foxconn crew, we had our share of accidents. The worst was when a worker was cut in two by a supervisor backing a truck into a work bay. I paid a number of visits to the company hospital with cuts and bruises, and to have bits of metal removed from my eyes. The hospital and the in plant first aid stations were kept quite busy.
I don’t remember any suicides at work, but over the years it was not uncommon to hear of workers taking their lives, or drinking themselves to death, especially during long layoffs. When people died while working it was usually from heart attacks. There was one homicide, when the local union president was killed by a disgruntled worker.
There was an explosion at a Foxconn plant caused by the accumulation of aluminum dust. When I worked in crankshaft machining there was an oil mist in the air so thick it looked like a yellow fog. The coolant which ran through our lathes, soaking my coveralls, was eventually found to be carcinogenic. I developed tendonitis because lifting unfinished cranks with my arms, rather than use the provided hoist, allowed me to work faster. On midnights especially we’d like to get done early and catch a few hours of sleep in the changing room before shift change.
We thought we were lucky to be working for Chrysler, and not at one of the feeder plants where the pay was considerably less, the work more demanding, and safety even less of a priority. Several of my friends lost fingers in stamping operations at those small shops.
It seems Foxconn too is a preferred workplace for Chinese factory workers, for the same reasons. Responding to the bad press Apple is telling its suppliers to raise pay, improve safety and, despite worker objections, cut back on excessive overtime. Something similar occurred at Chrysler in the 1980s, largely through the efforts of the unions, although no doubt the scrutiny caused by the 1979 government bailout also played a role. Around then the labour code was changed here in Ontario to make those double shifts illegal.
It is sad that Apple gave up on manufacturing in the US and Ireland. However China is where the entire industry has set up shop. Foxconn doesn’t just do Apple’s bidding. They have contracts with all the major computer and cell phone companies. And they are surrounded and supplied by hundreds of parts manufacturers that have also come to the area. You can’t buy a computing device that is not a product of that network.
According to the NYT Steve Jobs told Obama those American jobs are not coming back. I’m not sure he really said that (it was hearsay from a unidentified source.) To the contrary in Isaacson’s biography (chapter 41) Jobs was described at that same meeting as urging the president to make the return of the work possible. Besides the usual business complaints about over regulation and high taxes, Jobs talked about the need for tens of thousands of specifically trained engineers to run the assembly plants. The Chinese are doing this, the American schools are not.
China is a major market for Apple, potentially much bigger than any other. Apple manufacturing is going to stay there, assuming trade with China remains open. I think though, there is a way to do some final assembly in North America as well, a way that might have implications for auto manufacturing too. I’ll get to that in another post.