Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mike Daisey and the fight to keep people in crummy jobs

I listened to the riveting This American Life podcast retracting its January episode "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs", featuring the dramatist Mike Daisey, who misrepresented himself lied about the conditions under which your iPhone and iPad are produced.

For the record, I was always skeptical of media claims about worker exploitation in Apple factories. But that’s no great insight; I'm skeptical generally of the media, especially when I know a little something about the subject. Still, the discussion about journalism versus theatre shouldn’t distract us from the final question that producer Ira Glass asks in the episode:  as somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad?

From the transcript, here's the reply from a reporter whose own article has fueled the flames that Daisey started:

Charles Duhigg: So it's not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right? I'm a reporter for the New York Times, my job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own. Let me, let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you can make of it what you will. And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation.

It’s easy for me, sitting here with my latte in my comfortable urban apartment, to pontificate about “the rights of workers” as I head off to my cushy high-tech management job. But I don't like one part of Duhigg’s argument: who’s the  "we" that decided certain working conditions are "harsh" and others are acceptable?

Laws didn’t end harsh working conditions; people did. Like many in high tech (or for that matter, Duhigg or Daisey), I often work 60+ hours per week. My company “forces” me to endure weeks of painful travel, separated from my family. Do you feel bad for me? No: because I know the risks, I know the alternatives, and all-up, I enjoy what I’m doing. I see it as a step toward something better for me and my children.

America’s employment laws did nothing to protect me (or you) from the harsh working conditions of the past. My life today is better precisely because of that awful labor of my ancestors, who saw it as one step in an opportunity to build a better life for their family.  Rather than fight for laws to ensure their children could have a crummy (but safe!) job in a factory, they fought to ensure their kids never ended up in a factory at all.

Why assume that we latte-drinkers are more capable of deciding tradeoffs than the thousands of unskilled laborers who line up every day begging for a job at Foxconn?  When "we as a nation" made unskilled jobs  impossible to justify in America, we didn't count the votes of those whose alternative to a factory job was much worse.

Of course, the twists of fate can be cruel and there are Bad People who will exploit the powerless.  Labor laws are one tool that can bring immediate relief.  But it’s too easy to focus only on those who directly benefit -- the existing workers, who of course are grateful -- and lose sight of those who now have no opportunity at all. By forbidding, for all time, Americans to work at jobs that are no more worse than what my grandparents endured, many of today’s unskilled workers have been shut out of the labor market, their opportunities “exported” to places where there are fewer restrictions on how unskilled people can earn money.

Higher wages won't solve the problem. Many kind-hearted people will notice that labor is a small fraction of the cost of an iPad and suggest that Apple “do the right thing” and pay the workers more. That sounds like an easy solution, but it carries its own tradeoffs.

An above-market wage makes it harder for workers to bounce through the industry. Workers who thought of this job as a stepping stone to something better may find now that it already is better. If this unskilled job pays like a skilled job, why bother with further education? For that matter, why encourage your younger cousins to make an investment in school if they can do just as well (maybe better) at the factory.

Note that above-market wages don’t just trap you in a dead-end industry; they give more power to your current employer. Sure, a tough employee or industry union would shift the power temporarily, but eventually Foxconn will notice that it can do the same work elsewhere for less money. Or worse, your higher-than-market wage might be in a company that, through no fault of yours, is not keeping up with the industry and has to lay you off.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't be paid well, especially if the work is hard. But it's impossible to know the "ethical" price for labor when you take into account all the hidden costs, including the missed opportunities for people who are trapped in jobs paying more than they're worth. Isn't it better to let people decide for themselves?

You can’t exploit robots. Ultimately, those of us who want to end harsh factory labor are on the right side of history because whether Foxconn’s labor standards meet your personal definition of “humane” or not, those jobs will eventually disappear. In fact, people like Mike Daisey are accelerating the pace at which it becomes cost effective to replace unskilled people with machines because the tiny amount of labor remaining in the assembly line isn’t worth the bad publicity.

Let’s hope the workers today can rack up enough 60-hr-week overtime put away enough savings before that happens.

Back to Ira's question: should we feel bad about how the iPad is produced?

This is where my experience in the industry leaves me bristling at the moral arrogance of those who imply Mike Daisey is “the voice of our conscience”, or conversely, that there are some evil Apple managers out there who “look the other way” at despicable behavior. If you've been to a factory, or worked with a high tech manager who does, you know: we all care. Fear not, armchair urban TV watchers: your sense of justice is no higher than those who are actually working and managing the business. If somebody like Daisey makes them seem evil to you, listen with healthy skepticism.  We high-tech managers are humans too; we don't exploit people for fun or profit -- and it's presumptuous of you to think so unless you meet us.

If you truly want to help the people who make your iPad, don't forget the ultimate goal is not menial factory jobs, however well-paid or protected. Our ultimate goal, like those of these Foxconn factory workers, or my grandparents -- should be to find something better for themselves and their families.  Anything that takes away from that goal is not a fair trade.