A One-man Show in America Moves the Lever on Apple in China

This American Life, episode 454, Chicago Public Media

Apple Lists Its Suppliers For 1st Time, New York Times

Following a listen to last week’s This American Life about an investigation into the labor practices at Foxconn’s Chinese factory and then a read of yesterday’s New York Times article titled Apple Lists Its Suppliers For 1st Time, a rather informal method of exercising power towards sustainability is suggested while old methods are only possibly still effective, at best.

Shenzhen, China's first Special Economic Zone grew by 850% in the last 20 years and is now bigger than New York

The transition from old to new (or unusual) begins with the rise of multi-national firms as the major operators of the global economy and the greatest agitators for the easement of national trade barriers.  As power moved from the nation-states and their chartered corporations (which were set-up to exploit the comparative advantage between colonial master and colonial subject) to the modern multi-national firm, domestic power remained in the hands of the nation-state – in fact, was greatly expanded in the 20th Century.

But in the Times article, we find numerous violations of China’s own labor laws that go unenforced by ostensibly feckless labor boards.  In the This American Life episode, we are told the labor boards exist to make labor exploitation by MNFs easier by placing workers who report injuries on a blacklist, for instance.

What this means for the future of sustainability – both environmental and labor – advocacy on the inter-national scale is uncertain, but the Apple case reveals the strange politics of the present.

Mike Daisey, the investigator for the TAL piece, had turned his research into a one-man show, not only about Foxconn but also Steve Jobs, that coincided with the co-founder’s death. Labor violations, the roof top suicides, and the blind eye of the Chinese government were well-documented, not just in Foxconn, but throughout the deregulated “Special Economic Zone” of Shenzhen, in which it is located.

We now have the beginnings of action – i.e., Apple listing its suppliers and publishing aggregate audits of their workplace conditions – from a publicly-traded MNF and not from the intervention of government or from the lobbying of labor unions.  Apple, which had rebuffed the complaints of the Third Sector apparently relented on its policy of secrecy with the bad press of a popular podcast.  And the one-man show which caught the attention of Ira Glass and the TAL producers – half journalistic investigation (but outside the journalism industry) and half biography – could be viewed in major North American cities last year for about $50.

Whether the results seen on the front page of the paper of record’s business section are due to the TAL story as the prime mover or the straw that broke the camel’s back, Apple isn’t saying, but it does raise questions for the Third Sector.  The lot of non-profits and similar organizations around the world that make up the Third Sector has been in taking up the role of service provider and neutral intervener in inter-national conflicts and natural disasters – roles either invented as the need presented itself or performed by governments once more directly involved in social welfare.

What the Third Sector has not done largely – though they have tried – is change the policies of MNFs.  They can’t be lobbied the way representatives in a democracy can be lobbied, but they can be persuaded, apparently, by the fallout of a compelling story told to a portion of the young, podcast-listening audience that makes up the TAL demographic.  When it’s broken down like that, one wonders if Apple is more concerned with this demographic aligning too closely with their customers or their American employees.

And if compelling political storytelling told to the right members of the public should become a tool in the toolbox of sustainability advocacy, the question then is how to make deforestation as compelling as Chinese workers jumping to their deaths from factory rooftops.  Al Gore probably deserves more respect for making a Powerpoint about global warming engaging.

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One thought on “A One-man Show in America Moves the Lever on Apple in China

  1. Pingback: Sustainable Labor? | urbdp598

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