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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 26, 2012 at 9:52 AM

Apple’s ‘blood diamond’ moment

Another New York Times story today details the horrific working conditions for the Chinese worker-serfs who assemble Apple’s products. “Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.” It goes on:

Employees work long hours, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they have trouble walking. Underage workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens.

Are our shiny iPhones and iPads little different from the “blood diamonds” mined and sold to finance bloody insurgencies in Africa? Yes: United States policy under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush banned importation of these ill-gotten gains.

Outrage over Nike’s sweatshops forced the Oregon giant to introduce a code of conduct and other reforms at its overseas factories. Did this cost consumers more? I hope so. Last year, Hershey came under scrutiny for alleged involvement to lure foreign students to the United States, paying thousands of dollars to experience America. What they got were low-wage jobs in a subcontractor’s sweatshop. Freeport McMoRan was accused of massive environmental damage at its mining operations in Indonesia, as well as aiding the government’s suppression of protests (which it denied). USA, USA!

Ultimately, we’re to blame for these abuses if we allow our own government to tolerate them, if we act as “consumers” and not citizens, if we perpetuate globalization based on exploited workers in factories where unions are banned and conditions are horrific. As I wrote before, this is unsustainable. In addition to the moral shame of much American high-tech manufacturing in Asia, the denuding of these jobs from America makes it less likely many of us will have the money to pay for these gadgets forever. Debt has put up a good front. That’s now crumbling.

And Don’t Miss: Venture capital shifts from suburbs to downtown || Atlantic Cities

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Boeing’s flying high

Lifting Puget Sound’s outlook

Where we still make things

Comments | More in China economy and business, Income/living standards, Jobs/Unemployment, Tech economy


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