In 1996, I was invited to visit a factory in the USA which produced laptop computers for a colossal global technology brand.
The visit was conducted by a supervisor who walked us around the factory floor. At one point, within earshot of workers, he said words to this effect:
“These people don’t need any skills. In fact we want them to be just like robots. We just want them to do the same thing over and over all day. That’s why it is a minimum wage job. When we need new people we just hire them for as long as we need them. We can train them to do this in half an hour.”
That incident is a vivid memory 15 years later, because of the extreme bluntness of the comments and the fact they were made within workers’ earshot.
Now let’s fast forward to late 2010 and the present, when it has become fashionable to write about – and then wring one’s hands about – working conditions at Chinese manufacturers in light of reports of suicides at Foxconn and followups like this one in Wired or this one in the SMH.
I have no problem with these stories premises, although the latter inhabits that grey zone between conventional journalism and techniques that see journalism almost but not quite admit it’s a secondary or tertiary source.
But what I am sick of is the moral relativism that comes when we analyse one company and ignore others, and consider one issue but ignore others.
My personal experience means I know that workers who assemble consumer electronics get a shit deal. Living in the USA on minimum wage as a casual and being told to your face by a supervisor that you have no valuable skills is not a good gig. Is it worse than life in the Foxconn campus? Is the forced overtime worse than the economic reality of being offered more hours as a casual knowing that you have no power to negotiate?
For me, there are parallels.
But where was the media when I was touring that factory? Why has it taken a “sexy” product to get this debate started? Why is our collective sense of social justice aroused by one manufacturer and the company it serves?
Where’s the inquiry into the many, many other issues that accrete around our consumption of gadgets and the companies that make them? For what it is worth, the plant I observed is now owned by a Chinese concern. Why aren’t we reading about investigations of its practices?
I’m partly to blame. I could have reported on what I saw. It was beyond my remit at the time but I could have found somewhere to run a story about the working conditions I observed.
I chose not to.
And lots of journalists and readers around the world are also choosing to ignore things that are probably at least as bad as what goes on a Foxconn.
We can all vicariously slough off some guilt by tut-tutting about these stories, but that won’t make a difference. And I suspect, as I also read reams of speculation about the next shiny gadgets, that we don’t really want to.