Westerners Consumed By Tech Toys Wallow In Misplaced Guilt

Nothing demonstrates how self-absorbed Western moral sensibilities are than the recent controversy over working conditions at the Chinese manufacturer Foxconn.

Foxconn makes Apple products. And culturally, Apple’s iPad and iPhone are no mere gadgets. They symbolise high-tech consumerism. Apple’s brand is like a squeaky-clean combination of Greenpeace and Scientology. So criticism of Foxconn has been as much about popping Apple’s otherworldly bubble as anything else.

At least it was until this month, when the radio program This American Life was forced to retract a major “expose” of Foxconn it aired in January. In a special episode, reporter Mike Daisey admitted he had fabricated the worst stories. Daisey had never met under-age workers, never met poison victims and never saw armed guards at Foxconn factories.

But by then, the anti-corporate activists had already moved on. A petition with 250,000 signatures had been quickly delivered to Apple. (That petition was, of course, promoted by our own opportunists at GetUp!) Technology writers around the world had called for a boycott of Apple products. Yet Foxconn has better working conditions than comparable workplaces in China. Apple conducts more inspections and audits of its supplier than any other electronics company. By Western standards, most Foxconn jobs are repetitive, boring, the workers’ accommodation cramped, and there have been well-reported OH&S incidents. But by the standards of Chinese industry, they are still highly desirable jobs.

But the Foxconn story has had enormous resonance because it fits neatly into a moral tale of Western guilt. You, with your white earbuds and leather-covered iPad, are the direct beneficiary of a nightmarish, Victorian-era sweatshop. Foxconn’s 1.2 million workers suffer so Australians can play Angry Birds. It’s an alluring tale, perfect for sermons and email forwards. But think what this tale excludes. That is: sympathy for those who have failed to acquire a job at Foxconn. Sympathy for those who lack the skills to get a desirable factory job at all. Sympathy for those who produce goods not destined for First World boutique retail outlets.

So these consumer activism campaigns have a perverse result. We more pity the Chinese workers who have found the jobs that will lift them out of poverty than those who have been unable to do so.

Even more perverse is the implicit message behind these campaigns: that Western consumerism is to blame for the dire plight of Chinese workers. Sure, no one has to buy an iPad. But Chinese workers covet Foxconn jobs. The idea that we should boycott its products is counterproductive. A boycott would not raise labour standards but would deprive people of needed work. We don’t like to think about how the moral choices we make in the developed world could be stopping people in other countries from flourishing. That is most obvious when it comes to immigration.

When Tony Abbott announced he was considering subsidising nannies, feminist academic Eva Cox complained it could lead to calls for “cheap labour from overseas”. She was not alone. You’d think it’s pretty cruel to bar poor people from seeking better jobs for themselves. But somehow, such sentiments get wrapped up in the rhetoric of compassion. Perhaps Third World poverty just seems more pressing if it’s nearby. Foxconn makes high-profile products we use every day. Migrant nannies in Australia would no longer be in poor, faraway countries, but right under our noses. It’s an odd, repugnant and very modern notion of moral responsibility: that we must keep a respectable distance from poverty, even if by doing so we only exacerbate it. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not the developed world’s fault that some countries are poor. But it is definitely our fault if we are intentionally stopping them from seeking opportunities to get rich. And is there anything more patronising than the assumption that choices made by people in the Third World are merely the result of unthinking exploitation from the West?

Global capitalism doesn’t work like that. When Australians seek employment, we hope to get something out of it. Foreigners are no different. Foreigners are morally autonomous human beings like us, with preferences and plans and intelligence. They know if they are being exploited. They know better than us their employment alternatives.

One of the revelations of the This American Life retraction was that the long hours worked by some Foxconn employees was often entirely their choice. Just as Australian workers sometimes want to work overtime, so too do Chinese workers. Certainly, not everything is rosy in Foxconn plants. But then, not everything is rosy in the developing world. Our neurotic eagerness to blame ourselves does nothing to fix that. Worse, it could easily harm the people we wish to help.