Shortly after Steve Jobs’s death I started hearing murmurs from the left about how Apple exploited Chinese workers. In recent months, the murmurs have grown into an obnoxious chorus.
One of the major sources of the complaints about Apple and Chinese workers was a report on This American Life, a weekly public radio show. Well, turns out that the source for that report has been exposed as a fraud.
So what are working conditions at the companies Apple works with in China? Tim Culplan describes his firsthand experience visiting Foxconn, the Chinese electronics manufacturer that was featured in the original This American Life story.
Mike Daisey claimed to have come across 12-year-old workers, armed guards, crippled factory operators. We saw none of that. And we did try to find them. Nothing would have been more compelling for us and our story than to have a chat with a preteen factory operator about how she enjoyed (or not) working 12-hour shifts making iPads. We didn’t get such an anecdote.
In our reporting, as “Inside Foxconn” detailed, we found a group of workers who have complaints, but complaints not starkly different from those of workers in any other company. The biggest gripe, which surprised us somewhat, is that they don’t get enough overtime. They wanted to work more, to get more money.
The nightmarish picture painted by Apple’s critics of forced labor and recklessly unsafe conditions is baseless. That’s not to say there aren’t real problems—harsh bosses, long hours, bored employees—but such problems aren’t unique to Chinese companies, and they are primarily problems for the businesses involved: They will ultimately lose out if they can’t attract and retain good employees. But it is totally disingenuous to put problems of that sort in the same category as genuine rights violations.
Are there any cases of actual rights violations going on in Foxconn factories? I can’t say for sure. The only potential one Culpan mentions is a preventable factory explosion that tragically killed several people. If a company’s negligence results in the death of employees, that is something the government has an obligation to investigate and remedy. If the Chinese government did not do its job and protect the rights of workers, then that deserves to be condemned. But the blame in such a case would rest primarily with the Chinese government, and would not justify demanding that Apple pull out of China. In no case, would a single incident of this sort justify the smear campaign against Apple.
Which raises the question: Why are so many eager to think the worst about Apple? Might it be because Apple is our most successful business? If the Occupy Wall Street protests showed anything, it was that some Americans view business success as inherently suspect if not outright evil. What if that—and not Apple’s “worker exploitation”—is what is driving the smear campaign?