Apple's latest round of inspections at Foxconn and its other partners are not going to make anyone happy. Not Apple, not the suppliers, and most certainly not labor campaigners.
Audits by Apple of its supply chain have been going on since at least 2007. Annual reports have outlined excessive overtime, underage labor and safety violations, confirming what labor groups already knew. They've also shown that Apple's made continued efforts to address and prevent infractions, which labor groups say are insufficient. Now the Fair Labor Association is entering the fray by auditing Apple's suppliers, starting with Foxconn, raising hopes of that their impending report will clarify and settle the issues.
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This is the kind of whiplash that actually hinders the debate. Witness the collapse of Mike Daisey's claims to to have seen underage employees and crippled workers first-hand. Immediately Foxconn claims vindication and labor activists assert that Apple and Foxconn are liars themselves anyway.
The reason we have whiplash is that we're unwilling in this country to focus on what should be the focus of this debate and issue from the beginning.
That is not whether Foxconn is using child labor (they probably are) nor whether they're violating overtime regulations (it's documented that they are.)
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It is whether there is any resemblance of "free trade" when the people in one of the nations are not free by any definition, when government controls the economy, when it permits pollution and intellectual property theft as a means of "competition" and in fact participates in same, and finally when said government threatens to shoot (and sometimes does shoot) dissidents and protestors and thereby serve to prevent or severely-hinder strikes or any other sort of collective labor actions.
As I have repeatedly noted all of the "free trade" and "better life" claims that have been made by Apple and Foxconn, along with offshoring labor from the US to China in general, could have easily been made with regard to slaves brought to America. After all the slaves went from living in literal straw huts to far better accommodations and an indisputable better "standard of living." Note carefully as well that when the slaves were freed essentially none of them wanted to return to Africa to live!
Yet this does not change the essential character of what was going on in Colonial and early America -- these people were literal slaves. An economic slave is just one step removed from a physical slave, and the fact that people clamor for the best they can get within the boundaries of confinement doesn't change the essence of what's going on.
If we are to ever address these issues in an honest fashion we have to talk about the real issues that underlie all of this. That exploitation is complex doesn't change the essential nature of what it is, any more than we did here in America when we held slaves.
The arm-waving on both sides does both the Chinese worker and the American consumer a tremendous disservice. It also is part and parcel of the perpetuation of bubble "economics" (that is, Ponzi schemes) that our government, banksters and the Fed have all run for the last 30 years.
The premise that free flow of labor ought to exist sounds great right up until you have wildly disparate real costs of living, which only exist due to govenrment intervention in one form or another including cost-shifting and subsidy.. If I repress the people in a nation then any improvement is seen as "better" by them, but turning that alleged "betterment" into trade flows does not change the essential character of what's going on or why it was undertaken, and doesn't constitute "free trade" either.
If the predicate behind the existence of an imbalance such as this is force or fraud then the essence of the outcome is force or fraud. That's how it is folks and until we face reality and deal with it honestly there can be no resolution of what ails our labor market or China's economy -- an economic system that is literally hanging by the thread of malinvestment and bogus "appreciation" exceeding our Internet Bubble and Housing Bubble combined.
It's time for both America and China to grow up and face reality.