Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Unlocking iPhone Work

iPhones and other smartphones are frequently sold in a locked format so that Apple and others can dictate how they are used, at least to some extent such as choice of carrier. Apparently, Apple and others would similarly like to dictate a specific narrative about the jobs that Apple creates (or doesn't create). A wonderful New York Times story by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, "How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work" (January 22, 2012), describes how almost none of the 700,000 people who engineer and build iPhones and Apple's other products work in the United States. According to the article, "Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option."

Why? Here's more from the article:

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.
"We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive said. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need."

It's not skills that they are looking for, it's compliance! Apple can choose to make their products anywhere in the world, including the United States. They have chosen to outsource most of this work to Asia not because they have to, but because it's the most profitable. Many would say that this is Apple's right, or even its obligation. OK, but then Apple should be honest and say this is what they are doing.
Why can Apple produce its products much more profitabily in China?

That's because nothing like Foxconn City exists in the United States.
The facility has 230,000 employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Over a quarter of Foxconn's work force lives in company barracks and many workers earn less than $17 a day....

Foxconn employs nearly 300 guards to direct foot traffic so workers are not crushed in doorway bottlenecks. The facility's central kitchen cooks an average of three tons of pork and 13 tons of rice a day. While factories are spotless, the air inside nearby teahouses is hazy with the smoke and stench of cigarettes.

Foxconn cities used to exist in the United States. They were called company towns, and they became the scene of some of the country's worst labor strife. Think Ludlow Massacre. Pullman strike. Homestead strike. Workers tired of the abuse, and they fought for better working conditions and dignity. Chinese workers, too, are tiring of the abuse. Many have committed suicide. Others are turning to collective action and going on strike, just like American workers did 100 years ago.

So let's unlock the myth about iPhone work. The U.S. didn't lose iPhone work because of a lack of skilled workers, Apple chose to outsource its work elsewhere...elsewhere to places where workers are desperate enough to work longer hours for lower pay. And it's clear who the real winner is...last night Apple announced record quarterly profits of $13.1 billion.

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