Fair Trade iPhones

I was in a Starbucks bathroom in greater Vancouver last week where a poster on the wall got me thinking about our relationship as First World consumers to the labourers who make the stuff we consume. And of course that reminded me of the suicide nets hung in the Foxconn factories that make our electronics, like iPhones. Anyway, here’s the text of the poster (I didn’t have a camera with me):

Buy more FAIR TRADE CERTIFIED COFFEE than anyone in the world.
It’s simple. You choose to be our customer, and that means you’re the one that allows us to DO GOOD THINGS IN A BIG WAY. Like doubling the amount of Fair Trade Certified coffee we’ll buy this year to 40 million pounds. It’s a choice we can only make because of the choice you make — to walk into our store.


Starbucks Shared Planet. You and Starbucks.
It’s bigger than coffee.

I think I’m smelling a rather self-serving double-standard on the part of cosmopolitan Euro-Americans, but I have to admit, that is some slick advertising. They make the upper half of Western society — which globally is “the 1%” or darn near to it — feel economically ethical (a feat in itself) for buying $5 coffees (doubly impressive). The bourgeoisie of the First World are made to feel we’re behaving ethically in the global economy because overspending on non-essential creature comfort status symbols is promoting economic justice. In this global village, we’re economically responsible neighbours! Now, I’m glad Starbucks is at least making some degree of effort to be ethical in its sourcing practices. I’m not so sure patronizing Starbucks means First World consumers deserve a pat on the back, but that’s actually not the main point that I want to draw out of this.

“Everything we do, you do.” As far as ethics are concerned, the corporate actions of Starbucks are our actions as well. What they do as an economic player in some far-flung, impoverished coffee-producing nation is actually an expression and extension of our choices and actions as consumers. That, at least, is what the poster implies, and I’ll assume for the sake of the argument that this is true. My questions, then, are: Why limit this kind of thinking to coffee grown in South America? Why not apply this ethical connection between corporate actions and consumers to, say, electronics manufactured in China? If we get moral credit for the good things our favourite companies do through their purchasing and employment policies, do we share blame for the bad things as well?

For example, imagine how the text of that Starbucks poster could be rewritten by other super-popular companies like Apple, who manufacture their products in China:

Buy more NOT-FAIR TRADE ELECTRONICS than anyone in the world.
It’s simple. You choose to be our customer, and that means you’re the one that allows us to TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DESPERATE CHINESE PEASANTS. Like doubling the amount of Abusively Employed Desperate Chinese Peasants we’ll use this year to 2 million. It’s a choice we can only make because of the choice you make — to walk into our store.


The 1% Shares the Planet. You and Your Gadgets.
It’s bigger than smart phones.

I’m not singling out Steve Jobs or Apple. We, as 21st century First World citizens, have more access to information, individual autonomy, mobility, and power than any other average citizens of any other civilization in history. If we’re ethically implicated in the coffee we buy, what does that mean for our smart phones?

P.S. – I’ve only recently begun to really think about this topic; I’m mostly just thinking out loud here. So if anyone wants to provide me a foil and challenge the idea that we consumers are ethically implicated in the actions of the corporations who produce our products in China, you’re genuinely welcome. So are suggestions for potentially effective responses to the situation.

The one previous post in this vein is: Steve Jobs, Apple, China and Us.

For an introduction to the connection between your electronics (virtually all major companies, not just industry leading Apple) and abusive Chinese factories:

12 thoughts on “Fair Trade iPhones”

  1. I remember a Starbucks cup from several years ago which congratulated me for buying some of the small percentage of Starbucks fairtrade coffee…which meant the other large percentage was not. It was a weirdly mixed message.

  2. Too bad reincarnation inst available to some people. Amazes me how so many people bow at the Alter of Steve Jobs, when HE chose to build his amazing little pieces of plastic and metal in nations that wouldn’t make him pay higher wages and good benefits. What a joke. I don’t respect any man or company that chooses money over people. Now if he would have demanded any worker that is building his product get paid a wage equal to the wages they would have earned in America, or higher, then I would have some respect for him and his company.

  3. Foxconn provides housing for its workers, above market wages for the area, and the suicide rate is lower than both the country at large and among american college students. Show up at any career fair in southern China to see people SCRAMBLING to get a job there. Yes, some problems, but nothing that I don’t see any other company in any developing country dealing with.

    I’ll agree that consumers are ethically implicated in the products that they buy (kinda). So yes, don’t buy conflict diamonds. But iphones? Really? I’ll continue to be a guilt-free Apple consumer and shareholder. Good point you’re trying to make, but the Foxconn example is a bit off.

  4. Interesting points. I agree that the situation is more complicated than a short blog post can show, and that for a deeper understanding of what’s really going on we need much more nuance. However, I don’t think any of the things you mention in your first paragraph indicate that Foxconn is a decent place to work. Your examples merely suggest that China’s rural poor consider life at Foxconn to be not as bad as the peasant life they are desperate to leave behind. “Our working conditions are more tolerable than your grueling, hopeless, bottom-of-society, no-future peasant existence” is not the same thing as “Our working conditions are fair and decent.”

    Two worthwhile documentaries about the migrant worker experience in China are reviewed here and here.

    I’ll respond to your reasons one at a time:

    1. Foxconn provides housing. Most large factories provide housing, and food. And charge for both. So? The question is the quality of the housing, not whether or not they provide it. Same as with the job conditions: it’s not a question of whether or not they provide jobs, but of the quality of the working conditions.

    2. Foxconn pays above market wages for the area. Again, this is totally relative. Just because you can find a hundred million peasants willing to work for next-to-nothing doesn’t mean it is therefore fair to take advantage of their desperation by paying them next-to-nothing — that’s just taking advantage of their poverty. Paying them slightly better than next-to-nothing doesn’t mean they’re getting a fair wage.

    3. Foxconn’s suicide rate is lower than the national average, and of American college students. China has one of the highest, if not the highest, suicide rates in the world. Saying, in effect, “Foxconn’s suicide rates are not the worst in the world” doesn’t score them many points, imo. Anyway, that stat merely reflects the demographic difference between the country at large and Foxconn’s employees — apples to oranges. I don’t know about the American college student stat, but how is American college students having serious problems relevant to an evaluation of Foxconn’s working conditions?

    4. At job fairs Chinese people scramble to get jobs at Foxconn. Is that because Foxconn is such a great employer, or because being abusively employed at Foxconn is slightly better than other factories and the grueling poverty and no-hope future that awaits those who stay in their village to farm?

    5. Any other company in any developing country deals with this problem. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a serious problem with moral implications for First World consumers. It means the problem extends far beyond Foxconn, which is actually my bigger point: Foxconn is just the representative example of a global problem. The point isn’t to single out Foxconn and Apple as if they were somehow worse than the others, because they aren’t. But that doesn’t lesson their responsibility (or the responsibility of consumers), especially considering that Apple is an industry leader.

  5. Joel, I recommend Econ 101.

    1. it’s not a question of whether or not they provide jobs, but of the quality of the working conditions.

    Yep, but who gets to determine what quality it SHOULD be? In a voluntary market, by choosing this job, the workers are saying the conditions are adequate.

    2. …that’s just taking advantage of their poverty. Paying them slightly better than next-to-nothing doesn’t mean they’re getting a fair wage.

    Yes it is, once again, Econ 101. Taking advantage of their poverty? Well, say goodbye to all meaningful employment in every developing country in the world. It is ridiculous to expect wages in China to be even somewhat comparable to America. Who gets to decide what is FAIR? You certainly don’t get to, however voluntary contracts between employer and employee do. I agree that it’s great when companies pay above wages in the AREA they are operating, but this comes at a cost of hiring LESS people in that same area.

    3. This was the weakest of my points, all suicides are bad, I’m just pointing out that the suicides at Foxconn were pretty much par for the course in China, and seeing that the suicide rate were lower than what is EXPECTED there, perhaps we’re looking way too much into them? Nobody is accusing the american upper education system as being too harsh on its students, but technically it’s killing more of them than Foxconn is to its employees.

    4. Is that because Foxconn is such a great employer, or because being abusively employed at Foxconn is slightly better than other factories and the grueling poverty and no-hope future that awaits those who stay in their village to farm?

    Both. By providing a better future than staying in their village, Foxconn is technically a great employer, hence people scrambling. What do you expect them to do? HOW MUCH more than the average wage should they be paying? 20% higher, 305? Or should they be paying American wages? When I was working in Beijing several years ago, I was making 5 times the average income, yet I qualified as below the poverty level in America, should I have been paid more?

    5. Global problem?? Really??? All businesses have a responsibility to make money, to not break the law, to treat their employees with dignity and respect and to offer them a set of benefits that both employee and employer can agree on.

    I would never DREAM of working at Foxconn. The conditions are deplorable, the wage rate is unabashedly low, the working hours are dehumanizing, and from what I hear the food is terrible. But then again, I’m american, and I have NO CLUE about how to most people in China the conditions at Foxconn are fantastic, the wage rate is higher than most white-collar work in the area, the working hours are reasonable, and the food is awesome. The ideas that you are proposing (or atleast implying) 1) that companies like Foxconn need to raise their employment standards to those of its consumers and 2) since they don’t, I as a consumer should feel guilty are well meaning but ill-educated at best, and dangerous and patronizing at worst.

  6. this reply will have to be super short:

    • “Relatively better” does not mean “good enough” or “fair” or “decent”; inadequate working conditions can’t be justified as good just by comparing them to even worse alternatives.
    • I’m not saying Foxconn should provide American-level compensation in the Chinese economy. I’m just saying workers should be treated with at least minimal decency. That they’re willing to accept less because their alternatives are worse does not justify mistreating them.
    • Obviously there are economic factors that have to be dealt with, but this is, after all, essentially a critique of the whole system’s current status quo. We aren’t willing to accept Dickensian conditions for ourselves; how can we rationalize them as ethical for others?
  7. Sure. I’d already linked to it in this post: Affordable gadgets vs. Chinese workers’ rights [Updated 2x].

    But in the bigger picture, I don’t think it matters. We don’t think Chinese factories are bad employers because of Mike Daisy; it’s been known for decades. Even if everything that one guy said was totally made up out of his head, it doesn’t change the reality on the ground. The only reason he was so popular was because he was colourful and got people talking about it, not because he was a prime source of information. The case against Chinese factories (including Foxconn) and by extension Western corporations (including Apple) and consumers (including us), doesn’t rise or fall with Mike Daisy. Is anyone going to argue that conditions at Chinese factories aren’t seriously Dickensian? I don’t think so.

  8. Joel, 3 points:

    1. Who gets to decide what the standard for wages and working conditions and what is minimally “decent”? What you perceive to be indecent is perceived by many to be extravagant.

    2. You criticize the system for not immediately doing the very thing it always eventually does, that is level the difference between living standards between developed and developing countries, yet offer no alternatives. Which I suppose is fine because there are no alternatives, I guarantee you that.

    3. Stop placing your personal guilt on people and companies that have nothing to do with you. If you want to feel guilty, feel guilty that Apple isn’t hiring workers in Vietnam and Myanmar, because they deserve the work more. We don’t accept Dickensian conditions for ourselves? Sure we do, we went through years of it to get to where we are now. We accept is as ethical for Chinese workers because that is the ONLY way for a country to get wealthy.

    I love your blog, and I rarely comment, for that I apologize. But coming from somebody who’s career has been tied exclusively to economic development, and someone who has friends and family that work in “Dickensian” conditions who find your argument laughable (I’ve had this conversation with them many times), I find this entire post so incredibly ignorant and offensive that I couldn’t simply ignore it.

  9. I think you might be assuming I’m saying more than I am. And I don’t mind you providing the foil, as mentioned in the post’s P.S., which you might want to re-read.

    Let’s see if I can boil it down:
    – There is an ethical shortcoming.
    – Worthwhile improvements can possibly be made; things don’t have to be as bad as they are.
    – Consumers are partly responsible/ethically implicated.

    I don’t think the apparent absence of an objective standard is relevant (your first point above). Can we agree, for example, that long, routine, unpaid overtime is wrong? I suspect that the global 6% can probably afford the rise in product costs if workers were paid overtime and/or allowed adequate sleep without penalty. Re: point #2 – right, I’m not going to rewrite global economics in one blog post, or pretend that I could. See the P.S. #3 – even if we grant your point that there is no realistic alternative other than to tolerate the abuse of workers, that doesn’t mean it isn’t abuse, or that it is right, or that it has to be as bad as it actually is, just that some degree of unfairness is unavoidable.

    I can accept (and have assumed from the beginning) that Chinese working conditions cannot overnight adopt Western standards. But I don’t see how it is unavoidable for Chinese working conditions to be as bad as they are. Surely significant improvements can be made without upending the global economy? Significant improvements would still not even bring them up to the level of China’s own labour laws.

  10. Chip is more than right, although conditions in Foxconn factories are definitely not deplorable. I would say they are about the same as I ever observed, although Chinese dependence on so much manual labor changes a few things. Foxconn aint so bad, its probably the second and third tier domestic factories that could use some improvement, but now you have to talk to Chinese culture and government, not some western comglomerate punching bag. I am all for improved worker conditions, all over the planet, but it also has to profitable. Without profit, no product or business ecosystem lasts. Foxconn now pays much higher than other well known contract manufacturers. The media, and by extension, the public, absolutely misprepresents production everywhere since apparently few in the west do it anymore. No regulation is chaos, some regulation is good, over regulation will cause stagnation and decay. China is still deciding what’s important, and for the last 15 years, getting rich is what’s important, and they sure succeeded. Taking 300 million from dirt poor to the middle class in 15 years is truly amazing, unequaled in history. The human condition has been getting attention more and more, so worker conditions are naturally improving as the youth workers vote with their feet.

    ME: Involved in manufacturing since 1984. Visited factories in South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, US, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Malaysia, and many times in China. In fact, was at Foxconn Longhua for two week in March, 2012. Been there twice before, supporting product launches. Have spent months and months in China over the years supporting product launches at other factories. I do not work for Apple.

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