The issue of Apple outsourcing the manufacture of its popular products around the world has become a human rights issue, notably after abusive working conditions at the factories of Chinese company Foxconn were described by the New York Times and others. At the D: All Things Digital conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated that he would indeed like to have components for Apple products made and even assembled in the US.
Cook is, as Andrew Nusca on CNET points out, a “longtime operations guy,” so he knows what he is talking about when it comes to manufacturing. But here’s the catch: Cook says there aren’t sufficient high-tech manufacturing skills among workers in the US — that, as a January New York Times noted, it is not just that overseas labor costs less:
Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.
In addition, people in the US would simply not put up with the conditions Foxconn workers do, from living in dormitories that hold 8,000 people far from their homes and having to be “ready to be woken up at midnight to start a 12-hour shift making new parts for an iPhone that received last-minute design changes from California.” If anyone needs to know why we need unions, the life of a Foxconn worker provides ample evidence. As Rusca asks,
Does the U.S. really want to compete with China when human rights and quality of life standards are a bit more slippery?
But Cook’s statement that American workers simply lack the kinds of skills needed to manufacture Apple products is equally an issue. Rusca notes that the US’s manufacturing hubs (the Midwest, the Carolinas) are “not geared for electronics.” Could “the creation of technical schools that could create that coveted workforce of engineers without a bachelor’s degree” make it possible, or at least more likely, to create more jobs to make products like Apple’s?
It’s a point that lends further weight to emphasizing science, technology, engineer and mathematics — the STEM areas — in American education. But the notion of creating that “coveted workforce of engineers without a bachelor’s degree” of course runs counter to calls for more and more Americans to receive college degrees.
By saying that Apple would manufacture products in the US if it could but it can’t, Cook is offering what you could say is the “ethically correct” answer. One point not directly addressed is the extent to which consumers shares in the complicity: Everyone (or nearly everyone) wants an iPhone or iPad and would surely prefer not to have to pay more than they can for it. Would we pay more (than we already are) for Apple products?
Even as we laud Apple for creating devices that have made some people’s (my son’s included) lives better, we need to remember the workers’ rights and human rights issues, and the abuses, associated with making these products. Is it not too fitting that Apple’s name is the fruit famous for its role in humankind’s fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden?
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