In Steve’s Time Machine, nobody rides clean

With how much dread is still pulsating through the domestic economy with regards to unemployment, the timing couldn’t be better for lengthy analysis articles asking questions about it.  The NY Times contributes the latest entry, a consideration of why the Apple iPhone is not made in the U.S.

An obvious reason brought up for this is lower wages, but merely pay alone doesn’t quite get to the heart of the labor disparity.  Consider the following observation about the iPhone’s screen:

One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.” [emphasis mine]

Dorms? Long days? People waking you up whenever they feel like it? Sounds like college minus the fun parts.  Or prison…

The emphasis on flexibility is interesting in the total contrasting lack of it for the labor force. Literally living at your job, required to be available at all hours, you can imagine how much compensation people in the states would expect for this arrangement — and they would have good reason to do so, as they’d have no life outside of work.  Sock it away for another day I guess…wait, what’s that? They only make $17 a day?

This being a tech company we’re talking about, it’s not like it’s all super-routine work. Mere numbers can’t explain everything, right?

Though Americans are among the most educated workers in the world, the nation has stopped training enough people in the mid-level skills that factories need, executives say.

Any ideas what they mean by “mid level” skills?  And who previously did the training, if it has stopped?

Protectionist sentiment looks at this and chalks it up the the free market gone crazy.  As usual, it’s a bit more complicated — as in, “what free market?”.  Back to the issue of the screens, this time the initial decision to use glass rather than plastic:

When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day. [emphasis mine]

Aggressive government channeling of the means of production, as undertaken by the ruling Communist Party of China, playing capitalism’s tune.  The irony could choke a horse.

The article goes on to describe another supplier, Foxconn (yes, that Foxconn…), and their “city” (didn’t we try that concept before?).  Needless to say, Foxconn spokespeople brushed off the human rights and screwing-out-of-pay concerns.

Though the gist of the article is meant as a U.S.-centric concern, the primary thing I think about on this isn’t domestic in nature.  What does jump out at me is how, despite the admissions of the front office people how important to the end product these workers are, they have such negligible leverage.  They know the product yet would surely starve if they attempted to buy it, due not to mere numbers but to a system that deliberately keeps them at the bottom, unable to meaningfully organize and without the means to potentially adapt their skills to break away endeavors (think about it: without IP and bottom of the barrel wages in a closed market, how do you keep people in a job getting desperate enough to where the backlash takes the form of threatened mass suicide?).  Throwing off those chains and seizing their rights would, due to the long term gains in standard of living, work out better for all of us.

Well, except maybe Tim Cook & the Chinese government.

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5 Responses to In Steve’s Time Machine, nobody rides clean

  1. ricketson says:

    “Mid-level skills” question: serious or rhetorical?

    Assuming it’s serious, they mean things like carpentry and electrical work, or welding and other things used by heavy industry. Trade school; tech school. Of course there’s a reason that not many Americans have those skills anymore — the people who had those skills all lost their jobs 40 years ago.

    BTW, I have a post on my blog that sorta responds to this post:
    http://e-vigilance.blogspot.com/2012/01/american-patents-chinese-slavery.html

    • B Psycho says:

      I was wondering about that because they stated it as more than HS but not to a Bachelor’s degree, yet Associate degrees exist. The specific industrial/trade designation makes sense in context, guess it was just bad wording.

      With fewer of those kinds of jobs around anyway, the complaint about not having enough people trained in them is quite the “well duh!” moment: if students have an eye to the job market when they register, they’re going to be discouraged from fields that have a bad job market.

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