|Note - Not Starving Farmers|
Of course, one thing you can always count on with Americans is a thoughtless stampede to accept the simplest emotional narrative. Whether it's Foxconn or the Lords Resistance Army, Americans prefer to remain blissfully unaware of local conditions and the cultural, political and economic realities in these exotic, far-off places, instead embracing these simplistic and largely inaccurate tales that captivate us for minutes, sometimes even days before we return our attention to American Idol and March Madness.
So the Marketing geniuses at Apple, sensing a public relations nightmare that could perhaps be turned into public relations gold in the aftermath of the Mike Daisey/NPR kerfuffle, suddenly joined the FLA and brought pressure on Foxconn to treat their workers better. And as a direct and immediate result of this pressure, Foxconn agreed to limit the number of overtime hours an employee can work. Another blow for human rights and the dignity of the worker, right?
Well, once again, it seems that nobody quite got around to asking those very workers for their opinion on these issues. It turns out that many of them came to work at Foxconn precisely because of the large amount of overtime hours available, and many of them are not happy to see their income substantially reduced. You see, it is often misleading and even counterproductive to see foreign workers rights strictly through the prism of the American workplace.
All poverty is bad. And poverty in America, with it's cruel sink-or-swim capitalist mentality and the resulting lack of any kind of social safety net, is its own special kind of brutality. Urban homelessness, sub-standard housing, unhealthy food, sickness and the lack of basic care - all of this creates a kind of "permanent poor", people who simply do not have access to the basic resources they would need to improve their lives and take care of their families. It is nothing less than shameful that the wealthiest nation in the world should offer so little to help her own citizens when they are in need.
But all that said, poverty in America is NOTHING like poverty in emerging nations or the third world. In places like Nigeria, Congo, Vietnam, and yes, China, there are simply huge numbers of desperately poor people, people who are hungry and sick and unprotected in ways that Americans can't comprehend, mostly because Americans won't even look. These people, particularly the rural poor, die very young, in large numbers, from malnutrition, poor sanitation, disease, and yes, your occasional war or rebellion.
Conditions in these factories may offend our delicate sensibilities, but it is worthwhile to note that this labor-intensive kind of manufacturing is the first incremental step to increasing national wealth and raising the quality of life for entire generations. As the quality of life improves, a healthier, better educated workforce is able to build a more advanced economy, wages rise and the low-end manufacturing jobs based on cheap labor move to the next tier of developing nations. These factories don't have to indulge in any coercion to get people to work for them, because, as hard as the work is, a real apartment with indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, enough food to eat, and access to health care and education represents such a quantum improvement in human life and dignity that it almost cannot be measured.
People want to improve their lives, especially when their lives are almost universally awful. I'm sure they'd love to live just like you and I do, but that is simply not an option that is available to them. So we have to be careful when we try to overlay our values on their lives, that we aren't actually creating conditions that limit those quality-of-life improvements. There are incremental steps between subsistence farming and and a high-tech information economy, and those steps are necessary to get from where they were to where we are.
In so many cases, it is our hubris that is our biggest failing...