I’m sick of the Foxconn bullshit

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.


Post 59:08 Why the Olympics matter to Australia

With the Olympics over, Australia is experiencing a paroxysm of disappointment that we did not win as many medals as last time, a situation somehow considered a failure in light of two things:

  1. The “fact” that Australia is “good at sport”
  2. The amount of money we spend on sport

Many are arguing that if we could increase the sums involved at (2) we could prove (1).

Others are calling for restraint, saying we spend more than on sport.

I fall into the second camp. It costs about $100 million a year to rn elite sport in Australia. I’d like to see $100 mllion spent on achieving elite performance in every field of endeavor. For example, I am a journo: where’s my National Institute of Journalism. Where’s the chance for talented young writers to spend years in subsidised accomodation, being tutored by experts and assisted to realise their potential. If the nation gets so much pride from watching our athletes scoop up some disks coated in metal sourced from our nation’s mines, how good would it be to watch us pick up a Pulitzer or two?

The answer to the last question is: not proud at all. Australia generally cares not for intellectual achievement.

And that, I think, explains our obsession with the the Olympics as a leading indicator of national success.

Here’s why.

I lived in London in 1999, the year Australian teams came to England and won both the Rugby and Cricket World Cups. I celebrated both drunkenly and boorishly.

The Brits’ response, or at least those I worked with, was that Australia might be rather good at winning things, but the UK had produced Shakespeare. And Wordsworth. And Byron. Oh and there was the small matter of Empire, the modern banking system, the whole fragging age of enlightenment, the most globally-played sports …. and so on.

You get the drift. Britain has given the world and awful lot and, in the eyes of the world, stands for all those things and more.

Australia, I believe, stands for heat, funny and/or dangerous animals, beaches and vastness. None of which are products of our civilisation.

In fact the only products of our civilisation I can think of that people I have met around the world can readily cite are:

  • Fosters Lager
  • Paul Hogan
  • Russel Crowe
  • Sporting prowess

Let’s forget the first three. Especially Fosters. Because it seems to me that the main product of Australian civilisation most people can point to is our uncanny knack of producing successful athletes. We define ourselves by being able to do so.

Hence the national panic when our Olympians don’t prove we Still Have It.

Seems to me this is as good a reason as any to actually get serious about National Institutes of Everything Other Than Sport.

Post 52:08 More big questions

There’s a very interesting OpEd in today’s SMH, in which the authors describe YouTube as ” home port for lip-syncers, karaoke singers, trainspotters, birdwatchers, skateboarders, hip-hoppers, small-time wrestling federations, educators, third-wave feminists, churches, proud parents, poetry slammers, gamers, human rights activists, hobbyists.”

They go on to say that they see YouTube as having a role similar to zines in the 1970s, when zines offered a medium to present ideas incapable of reaching the mainstream. Communities and movements coagulated around zines, making them a forerunner of social media.

The piece also says that YouTube is now sufficiently adopted to enable it to bring down a government, partly because (and yes, I am making some context-disrespectful jumps): “While most people can read, very few publish in print. Hence active contribution to science, journalism and even fictional storytelling has been restricted to expert elites, while most of the general population makes do with ready-made entertainment.”

This all gets me wondering. I like ready-made entertainment. It is elaborate and rich in ways that sail beyond anything I have ever seen on YouTube. There is no YouTube Sopranos equivalent, for example.

And I disagree that active contribution to these other fields is somehow crimped today. Sure, there are rules before one can be published in a scientific journal, but those rules help to produce rigourous work. And I’m sure we’ve all encountered crackpots with odd theories. Let’s not even get started on climate change denial here!

I also wonder what the heck it is that the collective us will do on YouTube that will make a difference and bring down a government?

Perhaps we will all be so inspired by some content on YouTube that a social movment will coalesce around it.

I’m not so sure. I believe apathy is not only rampant, but encouraged. I remember watching political rallies in the 1970s. Today, PRs prevent such things from even happening, lest they be hijacked by someone off-message.

In any case, politicians may not see any benefit to social media interaction. Stilgherrian’s tweets from today suggest they are disinclined and under-resourced to deal with what is already coming their way.

I suspect that to take YouTube and other social networks from amusing curiosities to world-changers, new lines will need to emerge.

These things are called “social” tools for a reason, because people use them in their social lives. The web apps we use to organise our social lives are therefore designed to help us do that. Sure, they are good tools to link us with like minded people. And email etc means we now have tools that make it far, far easier to let our elected representatives know what is on our collective minds.

I suspec that “political networking tools” cannot be far off, that will aggregate opinion to enact change. At the moment we are 20 million lone voices, who sometimes get a lot more attention than was possible before YouTube. Once we can network ourselves more effectivley than GetUp rounding up money to make ads, things might just get to the transcendent place the OpEd hints at.

Post 45:08 My $0.05 on Bill Henson

Every so often, society gets its knickers in a twist and indulges in an orgy of moral panic.

Hence the current Bill Henson mess.

Here’s what I reckon we should do.

If you have ever taken photos of kids in the bath or on the beach, shot a snap of your kids innocently vamping it up in an age-inappropriate costume or watched Blue Water High without wondering why the national broadcaster has made a show about buff teenagers in bikinis, take yourself to the nearest police station and demand to be charged with whatever it is one can be charged with for putting kids in a context where it might be possible for someone to imagine that you were potentially contemplating sex.

I suggest you turn yourself in because if you have done any of these things you are, quite obviously, a step away from the kind of depravity that our child protection laws are actually designed to prevent.

So turn yourself in and let’s see what happens when the courts have a few hundred of these absurd cases to deal with.

Maybe that will make the point that edgy, disturbing, art is nowhere near as dangerous as closed minds.

Post 40:08 Tabloid broadsheets and public broadcasting

There’s a fair bit of noise around at the moment about how established, quality media outlets conduct themselves online. Crikey and Media Watch have both had a go in the last few days, targeting SMH.com.au. By total coincidence, the Crikey piece seems to have been written at almost the same time as I Tweeted my surprise about the current content of SMH.com.au.

My second Tweet on the subject was a very early thought on the issues here.

For me, they revolve around brand. The Sydney Morning Herald projects itself as a serious, considered newspaper that people who live in Sydney need to read to understand the life of the city (and therefore the world) they inhabit and the ideas, events and forces that are making it tick. That brand promise is not, however, expressed as well online, where stories about all manner of events are more prominent.

The mismatch between the established values of the newspaper and the very different values of the website are bound to rankle many readers. I think that a subtle re-branding of online to set different expectations could work wonders.

Reaching that conclusion also got me thinking about what happens when and/or if the content that sells comes to dominate the print version of the Herald, a scenario suggested in the Media Watch piece.

If this nasty outcome eventuates, I think the role of public broadcasting will become even more important, as only outlets that are not beholden to page impression-driven thinking will be able to contemplate what we now call “quality news.” Of course we will all be poorer if only public broadcasters even make the attempt, or if they do not get the funding to do so.

The funding issue is often put down to the fact that governments of all stripes think the ABC is biased against them. I find that natural, in a weird way. Even Labor governments, after all, are basically dominated by capitalist and monotheist discourses. Those are almost impossible to analyse from the right, because they are OF the right, in my opinion, leaving most journalism easily perceived as carrying a left bias. But that’s a thought for another day ….

Post 16:08 On apologies

I wholeheartedly support today’s apology to the stolen generations.

And I’m blogging it for two reasons.

One is that I fully expect that ten years from now, blogs like this one will be material that my son uses when writing reports about the tenth anniversary of the apology. He’ll be in year nine. So hi there, future son!

Secondly, the apology is warranted as I know from some personal history of family destruction. My late grandmother Lucia had six siblings, all of whom died in the Holocaust. Her attempts to find any trace of them in post-war Europe are seldom spoken of in the family, so harrowing were the years of waiting for letters from the Red Cross and other organisations who scoured Europe in the post-war years, helping survivors to track their loved ones. None of the letters she received ever contained good news.

For me, the Nazi attempts at genocide are no less ghastly than Australia’s. For a time, we simply did not believe that Aboriginal people or their culture had any role in our society, a monstrously arrogant position. And while we did not mass murder on an industrial scale, as the Nazis did, we nonetheless had the same aim of causing a race to cease existing.

I hope today’s apology means Australia can make sure that it never practices similar policies again.

Post 11:08 Your postcode may suck, but Australia Day means a lot

Australia Day. I never know what to think about it.

I don’t understand quite how it is appropriate to celebrate the day a colonial power ran up the flag to found one colony of several that later federated to become a nation. That nation, of course, failed to recognise the nations already here. And the day itself was the day of a ceremony, not the day the leader of the British expedition set foot on Australian soil.

So all up, not a great day in many ways.

I also find it hard to digest Australian nationalism. My most vivid memory of the Cronulla Riots was one of the white hoons who wrote “2030: We grew here, you flew here” on his chest.

The rhyme, I’ll leave alone. The postcode has long amazed me. How one can hold up the artificially created postal administration district one inhabits as any kind of cultural signifier is utterly beyond me. It’s become kind of a metaphor for me of the futility of nationalism, especially for shallow-rooted nations like Australia.

How can anyone declare “my recently agglomerated section of land and its dominant values is superior to your agglomeration of land and its cultural values” is beyond me. I just don’t get it.

Right about now, some folks will be thinking that if I think so little of Australia, why don’t I get the hell out.

But as it happens, I do think an awful lot of Australia. I was astounded by the strength in our society that allowed a peaceful handover of government. In case you missed it, government gets formed like this:

Governor General to leader of party with majority in the House of Representatives: “So you have a majority in the house of representatives?”

Leader of Said Party: “Yep. I’m pretty sure I do.”

Governor General: “Righto then. I give you the power to run the place.”

In a world where power is so often held or seized by force, or desired for personal enrichment at the expense of the populace, that conversation, the generally modest desire  for self-enrichment by those in power and the changes that flow from it are utterly remarkable. It is also, I think, far more deserving of reflection on our national day than the day settlers arrived got around to installing a flagpole. It says more about our culture than prattle about “mateship” or “a fair go” ever will.

And its far more important than your postcode!

Post 122: A desperate old man clinging to power

The election is now yesterday’s fish and chip wrappers and the Ruddbot has gone to Bali.

But I feel it is worth noting the washup of the coalition loss, especially in light of John Howard’s demise and humiliation.

I say humiliation because, for all of his achievements, he has gone out a loser and a confirmed liar of the highest order.

Here’s why.

I’m sure we all remember the “I’ll serve as long as the Liberal Party wants me to serve” line that he trotted out for years when asked about the leadership.

Well, if accounts of the Alexander Downer speech to the Press Gallery annual dinner are to believed, the Liberal Party asked him to step aside in 2006 but he ignored the calls because  they were made too rudely!

Then came the APEC “putsch” where he was told it was time to go, and graciously decided that he would … two years into the future.

Lie upon lie.

Some say that Howard did this because he saw the writing on the wall for the government and was therefore courageous in  insisting he clean up his own mess rather than let the blame for a loss rest on Costello’s shoulders.


He was a desperate  old man clinging to power. And only the old was new, if you see what I mean.

Post 120: I despair

Post-election coverage analysis is weird stuff, because on the evidence of one election the punditariat go nuts with long term predictions that have little or no basis in fact.

The current theory du jour is that Rudd will win at least two terms.

Well head on over to the Australian Election Commission’s Virtual Tally Room and you’ll see that as of today there are still eight seats in the lower house that are too close to call, because the two party preferred vote is somewhere between 49.5% and 50.5% for the Libs and the ALP.

Unless the postal votes go nutty, that translates to eight seats that will end up with tiny margins.

A couple of scandals and the Ruddbot could be out on his ear in three years.

So let’s not have this Rudd dynasty, Libs in disarray argument running uncontested. The ALP has a healthy margin for this parliament. It will not take many votes changing to make it a very slim margin next time around. And with general agreement that the world economy is not exactly poised for a fabulous few years, how exactly will the ALP extend its lead in those marginals next time?

Post 117: I’m voting for …

For me this election campaign has added up to this:

Liberal: We got you into this mess, only we can get you out of it because the other mob are unionists.

Labor: We have some shiny new ideas and we are not the other guy.

And the winner is?

For me, Labor. At least they are coherent.

The Libs lost me (logic-wise, not affections-wise) on the day Howard said he wanted to take Australia away from being a welfare state but then announced handouts to cover educational expenses including private school fees, as it showed his ideology is divorced from his policy. The gap between the two is filled by costly expediency: My family is pretty well off yet is eligible for plenty of welfare we do not deserve. I suspect the many, many handouts on offer these days have given Australians a false sense of entitlement that will serve the country poorly for years.

And that from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Tories.

When a political party gets that confused about how to achieve its desired outcomes, its gotta go.

Oh yeah … and I really HATE Howard. But I am worried that Rudd has Blair-like  shallowness.