Can we use Consumerism to Balance Globalism?

Chris Smith

Can we use Consumerism to Balance Globalism?

Last night I had the chance to catch Mike Daisey's performance at TBA: 10, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS.

Daisey is a talented monologist and I've been a fan since seeing his first show, 21 Dog Years, Doing Time @ in a small venue on Belmont many years ago. Daisey is a technology geek, and a large man who favors wearing black, so I have more than a little identification with him.

His latest show intertwines two stories, the career of hard-to-work-with genius Steve Jobs, and Daisey's investigation of the working conditions in China at the plants where Apple's objects-of-desire products are manufactured. Daisey visited Shenzhen in the special economic zone in China and interviewed workers at Foxconn (notorious for its employee suicides), including 11-, 12- and 13-year-old employees, about their 80-100 hour work weeks and unsafe conditions.

Daisey alternates these two threads, and I couldn't quite see how he was going to bring them together until the end, when he posits that we can't solve these horrendous working conditions via a boycott. We won't give up our electronics and switching manufactures won't help - they all manufacture the same way.

Instead he suggests that only Jobs can make the necessary change, and our role is to influence Jobs. He observes that Jobs is keenly aware of his market, and moved Apple from being one of the most polluting electronics manufacturers to one of the greenest based on understanding of its customers' sensibilities.

He encourages us all to let Jobs know ([email protected]) that we'd like Apple to lead reform of working conditions in China and vote with our credit cards.

So how about it, Steve? I'll break down and finally by an iPad to go with my iPhone 4 if you'll give me some assurances that you're taking this issue seriously!

Meanwhile, Daisey has two more shows, today and tomorrow at 6:30pm at Washington High School.

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    We would all like to see wages and working conditions in China improve. The main dynamic for those improvements will be, IMHO, the growing economy of China itself and not outside pressure (although I’m not against outside pressure like you suggest). And it’s happening. The NY Times recently reported on labor unrest in China (here):

    “Although the walkouts were quelled with higher salaries, sometimes doubled, factory owners and labor experts said that the strikes have driven home a looming reality that had been predicted by demographers: the supply of workers 16 to 24 years old has peaked and will drop by a third in the next 12 years, thanks to stringent family-planning policies that have sharply reduced China's population growth.

    “The other new reality, perhaps harder to quantify, is that young Chinese factory workers, raised in a country with rapidly rising expectations, are less willing to toil for long hours for appallingly low wages like dutiful automatons. At the same time, China has rapidly expanded university enrollments, resulting in an already dwindling number of less-educated workers willing to accept the rigors and monotony of assembly lines.”

    China still has a reservoir 300-600 million peasants living in very primitive conditions. They, especially their young, often still find those Apple factories, even with those terrible wages and working conditions, preferable to rural agricultural working conditions.

    Part of the dynamic is the movement of low wage factories to the interior (west) of China, where wages are lower but transportation costs for exporting are greater. I just attended a talk on China’s effort to develop the river transportation infrastructure of the Yangtze River in a centrally planned effort to move industrialization westward (and to bring into the global market economy, both as workers and consumers, more of the rural Chinese peasants) (see here).

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