Sustainable Labor?

The national conversation about Foxconn, largely spurred by Mike Daisey’s timely narrative monologue (discussed in a previous post here) may reflect a growing consumer awareness of product sourcing. Or perhaps, now that Apple is vying for the title of world’s largest corporation, we here in Microsoft country are simply jealous.

Either way, it’s worth asking what we as sustainability advocates have to say about labor practices, global supply chains, and the like. I would like to offer a couple of thoughts, which will hopefully be the opening salvo of a broad conversation.

First, it deserves mention that the climate impacts of remote production of consumer goods are not necessarily greater than producing them closer to home. For example, the amount of carbon produced per unit by shipping an iPhone from a factory in China to Seattle on a post-panamax barge is a lot less than trucking it up here from California.

Second, the labor market here in the United States is very different from the labor market in China. The most recent jobs report, seen as a “game changer” by many economists, illustrates this. Manufacturing did add jobs, but the strongest sector was professional and business services. In fact, 80% of American jobs are in the service sector, and this is not likely to change very much, even with Detroit’s resurgence and the expansion of the energy sector.

The fact is, a job is not just a job – it is a repository of cultural meaning and economic benefit. Hence, the “goodness” of a job depends on context. Despite the poor conditions in the Foxconn factory, people are clamoring to work there. These jobs are a ticket to the middle class for many Chinese. They would not serve the same function or have the same meaning in the United States. In Guatemala, a job at McDonalds is considered respectable, while a construction job is not – the opposite of the situation here. Despite how much President Obama may want to bring down the unemployment rate, doing so sustainably means recognizing that some jobs are better than others. Realistically, most Americans wouldn’t want to work at a place like Foxconn. Nor do they want to pick apples.

Slightly off topic, but I find fascinating the research on worker-well being at Boeing, our region’s top provider of “good jobs” — jobs that pay a living wage and have a high employment multiplier. Tracking them for several years revealed that workers who were laid off from Boeing were better off than workers who stayed. Read about the study here. It would seem that the opportunity to reinvent oneself actually is more important to Americans than steady employment.

Government regulations can and should ensure that employers are providing their workers both here and abroad with a certain level of basic human dignity (preventing child labor, guaranteeing a minimum wage, allowing workers to organize). Beyond that, perhaps market forces should be allowed to find the most efficient means of production.

I’ll leave you with a Yes Men video about the history of labor relations since the American Civil War. I love watching the audience non-reaction to such an absurd satire. If you don’t have time for the entire video, skip to about 6:20.

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One thought on “Sustainable Labor?

  1. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to reply to my own post, but I just found a quote that I think sums up the idea of sustainable labor. It’s from the late Christopher Lasch, author of _The Culture of Narcissism_. By way of context, Lasch is lamenting that many feminist activists of his day were focused on the goal of competing in the workplace. Lasch writes:

    “Those who endorse the goals of the women’s movement need to look beyond the existing organization of work, and beyond feminism, to a new set of social arrangements in which work becomes itself another aspect of nurture, transcends its present character of individual self-aggrandizement, and comes to serve the needs, not merely of the living, but of generations yet to come.”

    The quote is dated August, 1978, which is nine years before Brundtland.

    Also, GO CHRYSLER!

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