Saturday, May 29, 2010

iJump

The iPad is out! I can die in peace now, knowing that human kind is in its way to a better future. Yes, siree.

Newspapers all over this sunburnt land were jubilantly reporting “long lines in Europe and Asia to buy Apple's iPad”. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! What excitement!

You probably saw the images on TV: long queues of customers snaking outside Apple shops in Australia and Japan hours before their opening and similar huddled masses turned out at stores in six European countries.

Is there anything more emblematic of this brave new world we live in? Think about it: ordinarily, people hate queuing, as any unfortunate “customer service” officer will readily tell you. I know that, I’ve been there.

Yet, here we have thousands of anxious people, happily queuing for the opportunity of coughing up at least US$ 499 for the latest miracle gadget.

And remember: we’re supposed to be just leaving the greatest global recession since the 1930s, with Europe in the grip of what could easily turn out to be the second chapter in the GFC (or should I say iGFC v2.0?)


So, what’s so great about the iPad, anyway?

Frankly, I haven’t laid my hands on one of those gadgets. And, there ain’t no person less qualified to review it than yours truly. God, I’m yet to own my first garden-variety, no-frills mobile phone!

So, I’m ready to accept anyone’s word that this contraption is great, beautifully designed and user-friendly, too. In other words: the best thing since the invention of sandwich bread.

Still, I have difficulty understanding this generalized enthusiasm. Maybe I’m just a bitter old fart, but to me this all looks kinda childish.

Of course, some people have plenty reasons to feel genuinely excited about the iPad.

For starters, the good people at Apple, obviously. Judging by their 8GB iPhone, which started selling at US$ 599 in July 2007, but now costs US$ 99 (hopefully, still profitable), they could make a buck or two. [1]

And we might be justified to lay our worries to rest, because the market, in its infinite wisdom, provides the best testimony to Apple Inc. financial health: its 52-week low was 52 weeks ago ($132.03 precisely on the 28/05/2009) while its last closing price was on the 28/05/2010, at $256.88. 94.56% up! [2]

Another person who may feel legitimately excited about the iPad is Rupert Murdoch:

“The multi-functional device is tipped by some pundits to revitalise media and publishing, with many major newspapers and broadcasters launching applications. (…)
Newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch has said the iPad has the potential to save the newspaper industry”. [3]


“Not happy, Jobs!” Or is it “no happy jobs”?

Still, I don’t know how happy Chinese workers ought to feel about this whole thing.

You see, Apple Inc. contracts the production of its wonderful gadgets to overseas factories.

The iPhone itself is assembled in China by Foxconn (whose parent company is the Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision). In fact, a host of other large corporations have extensive dealings with Hon Hai, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony, Nokia, Motorola and Nintendo.

As you might imagine, although the products exhibit the customer’s logos, they were produced by the same people!

Between 01/01/2010 and 27/05/2010, 11 Foxconn workers killed themselves, at or near their workplaces. Apparently, by jumping from buildings.

Some people could be tempted to conclude that this suicide wave might be indicative of severe industrial relations problems in Foxconn. After all, the media has reported on young workers having to work 12-hour long shifts, 6 days a week, for a monthly pay of $300 (overtime included). [4]

However, as the editorial team of The Wall Street Journal online (which belongs to Mr. Murdoch's media empire) stated: “suicide is too complex an issue to rush to conclusions”. [5]

According to the same WSJ article, these suicides are best explained by non-work related causes: “love affairs gone wrong”, “adjustment difficulties” created by a mass-society, lack of family support.

Undoubtedly, low pay and terrible working conditions commonly associated to sweatshops are too simplistic an explanation to be taken seriously, even though the article also revealed that “a young manager killed himself last July [i.e. July 2009] after an Apple iPhone prototype went missing, and his final messages to friends suggest he had been interrogated and beaten”.

Nor that this was an isolated incident, either. The same WSJ editorial team goes on to say: “In a separate incident the following month [i.e. August 2009], the company confirmed its guards beat employees after the incident was caught on video.”

However, if one gives credence to the WSJ (and I have no particular reason to doubt it), Foxconn is far from your garden-variety sweatshop. The campus contains a hospital and a bookstore. Karaoke contests are organized for its workers and local streets are palm-tree lined. [6]

More importantly, management has taken measures to remedy the situation. For starters, nets have been installed around its buildings, so that workers would be caught if they do jump. As importantly, workers have been asked to sign a letter pledging they will not try to harm themselves and “saying that workers or their families, wouldn't sue Hon Hai if a worker died or was injured in a suicide attempt”. [7]

Furthermore, on the 29/05/2010, Hon Hai/Foxconn management decided to increase wages to its Chinese workforce by an average of 20%, in a measure described by Hon Hai/Foxconn management as “unrelated to the suicide wave” and to the enquiries made by their foreign clients (among whom was Apple). I just hope such generosity will not endanger Hon Hai/Foxconn’s financial health. Time and markets shall tell.

So, it is entirely possible that pay and working conditions in Hon Hai/Foxconn are not exceptionally worse than in the whole of China. In fact, they might be among the best.


The road to Monowitz.

Most readers probably have never heard of Monowitz. I can’t blame them.

Monowitz was built as a work camp, in what today is Poland, at the request of IG Farben.

In this pioneering Public-Private Partnership, the private sector contribution made by IG Farben consisted on the installations themselves, equipment and raw material.

Other large corporations, eager to fulfil their patriotic duty, like Siemens and Krupp, also arrived at similar agreements. In fact, the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex had 45 subcamps.

And the public sector, that is, the Nazi Government, through the SS, agreed to provide onsite security, and slave workers (charging IG Farben 3 Reich Marks a day for each unskilled worker, 1.5 for children, and 4 for skilled workers) to work in IG Farben’s synthetic rubber production facility.

The products, obviously, had IG Farben’s name attached to them.

Workers who did not perform satisfactorily were beaten to death on the spot (sometimes at the request of visiting executives) or sent to Birkenau, where they would end sooner or later, anyway, as a result of overwork, starvation, disease, mistreatment and cold. [8]



I suppose no sweatshop today can really be compared to Monowitz: undoubtedly we have come a long way.

But I fear for the future and I hope apologists of globalization and outsourcing, some of whom describe themselves as leftists, are right. They better be.

[1] iPhone Wikipedia entry. Accessed 29/05/2010.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone
[2] Data from http://online.wsj.com
[3] Carole Laundry. iPad-mania as thousands queue for global roll-out. SMH. 29/05/2010.
http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-technology/ipadmania-as-thousands-queue-for-global-rollout-20100529-wlsj.html
[4] I promise not to kill myself: Apple factory workers 'asked to sign pledge'. SMH. 26/05/2010.
http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/i-promise-not-to-kill-myself-apple-factory-workers-asked-to-sign-pledge-20100526-wddd.html
[5] The Foxconn Suicides. 28/05/2010. WSJ online. Accessed on 29/05/2010.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269204575270031332376238.html
[6] Jason Dean and Ting-I Tsai. Apple, H-P to Examine Asian Supplier after String of Deaths at Factory. 27/05/2010. WSJ online. Accessed 29/05/2010.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704026204575267603576594936.html
[7] It appears that workers are no longer required to sign the letter.
[8] Monowitz concentration camp. Wikipedia entry. Accessed 29/05/2010.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monowitz