A thorny aspect of business ethics emerges when we examine the outsourcing of work by American companies. Earlier in January 2012, an in-depth piece in The New York Times examined the subject especially as it applies to electronics manufacturing. Apple was the centerpiece of the well-researched and balanced story.

Reaching back into early 2011, they reported on a dinner the Silicone Valley élite hosted for President Obama. Each of the top tier executives was asked to bring one question for the President to answer. However, he had a question for Apple icon Steve Jobs: “What would it take to make iPhones in the United States? Why can’t that work come home?” President Obama asked. Jobs’ response was short and to the point: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Surprisingly, the answer has less to do with the cost of labor in China where the iPhone is made and more to do with the availability of workers from those on the assembly lines, to engineers who are trained and ready to go to work. China has huge industrial complexes with the technology and personnel available on short notice, and that usually makes the difference.

One company dominates this field. Foxconn Technology has dozens of facilities in Asia, Europe, even North and South America. Close to half of the electronics that fill our lives pour out of their factories. You name it, from Amazon to Apple, from Nintendo to Nokia, from Samsung to Sony and almost any other brand name in that game, Foxconn makes it.

One of their complexes in southern China, Foxconn City, is a picture of efficiency and productivity. Nearly a quarter million workers are at its command. Many live in Spartan barracks next to the factories, on call at a moments’ notice. That’s where the picture becomes a lot less attractive. The workers, most of them young women, reportedly often feel trapped in an endless chain of 12 to 15-hour days.

A 2006 story in The London Daily Mail and other more recent sources detail the despair that leads to a high rate of suicide among these workers. A problem that Foxconn deals with by stretching nets between their housing units to prevent the workers from leaping to their death off the roofs of their barracks. The Daily Mail cites a 21-year-old from central China, a worker on an Apple assembly line whose 90-hour weeks paid her less than fifty bucks a month. The Daily Mail points out that allowing for inflation that comes to, “about half the wage weavers earned in Liverpool and Manchester in 1805.”

Ethically where does that leave Apple and all the rest of the big guys who turn to Foxconn and the host of suppliers surrounding its facilities, most with appalling working conditions by our standards? Should we blame Apple? Maybe we should look at those who demand nifty gadgets at unrealistically low prices. Maybe we should look in the mirror. Ponder that ethical enigma the next time you finger the toys in your pockets.

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W.T.
About The Author W.T. "Bill" McKibben
W.T. “Bill” McKibben is Senior Counsel, Ethics Practice, The Great Lakes Group. His book, Play Nice, Make Money, makes the case for the ethical business model as the surest path to profitability.




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