The New York Times has a piece that argues – though the narrative is highly forgiving – that the flexibility ‘demanded’ by contemporary technology firms (amongst others) can only occur if they’re allowed to outsource labor. The reason? In countries like China you can rouse 8,000 people out of their dorms in their walled factory-city and put them to work almost instantly. In China, the government will subsidize the costs of massive factory development. Because in China, you can find thousands of engineers – not ones with bachelor degrees, but with a middle-ground space between high school and university – within two weeks.
In part, Asia was attractive because the semiskilled workers there were cheaper. But that wasn’t driving Apple. For technology companies, the cost of labor is minimal compared with the expense of buying parts and managing supply chains that bring together components and services from hundreds of companies.
For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.
Never forget that language like ‘scale up and down’ really means ‘add and shed labor’, which is further translated to ‘pay people so they can live and work and then rapidly fire them without cause.’ Moreover, the reason why supply chains are so effective in Asia are because most of the bits and pieces of today’s gadgets are manufactured in dense techno-factory domains. These locations are incredibly hazardous to individuals who work there and the environment they are located within.
The ‘common sense’ of locating these factories in China shouldn’t obscure the fact that the West is benefiting off the hard labor of foreign citizens that costs those citizens now – with their health and lives – and may poison them in the future – both as their factories destroy the local environment and return toxic e-waste in the form of disposed products.
There is an ethics to technology. We need to start actively thinking about them.