As a junior high student, I was privileged to travel to North Carolina with my choir, where we recorded a few songs at a pastoral studio in Chapel Hill. After laying down some tracks, we stopped at a migrant farm that acts as a supplier to the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, which controls the largest market share for pickles in the United States. The trip was organized at the behest of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a labor union that champions wage increases for Midwestern farm workers.
The trip included a tour of the workers’ living quarters, which were rickety wooden shacks with bunks and kitchenettes housed in a single room. The air indoors was as dank and muggy as the climate outdoors, with no air conditioning to mitigate the sweltering heat. The ancient stoves, over which the workers’ wives cooked dinner, raised the indoor temperatures to unbearably hot levels and were thus used sparingly. Watermarks covered all four walls, permeating the wood; they made us anxious to leave for fear that the whole rotten structure might collapse on our heads.
The union organizers told us that many of the undocumented immigrants who work at the camps are lured to the U.S. with promises of a country overflowing with money and a home for each man and his family. Upon arriving, however, the workers are met with a far less pleasant reality. Many are forced to pay a substantial fee from their weekly paycheck, lest the smugglers report them to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The fee effectively prevents any upward social mobility and strands the men in the camps with no money to send home and no means to bring their families across the border.
As you can imagine, the short-lived visit to the farm was by far the most moving aspect of the choir trip — one that I was rudely reminded of after reading about the working conditions at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. If you didn’t read the New York Times article that started the latest upheaval over the plant, Foxconn is the company that manufactures consumer products for Amazon, Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, Nintendo and thousands of other electronics companies worldwide.
Many workers in these complexes are women who earn barely $50 a week and some forced to spend half their salary on room and board within the complex. Room and board apparently means sharing a room with one hundred other workers, having only a bucket to wash your clothes in, and being prohibited from hosting any visitors.
If that’s not enough, Foxconn laborers — many of whom are underage — often work 15-hour, seven-day weeks and have been exposed to toxic chemicals that cause nerve damage. Others die in factory explosions or commit suicide due to what they’ve come to deem a “meaningless” life with virtually no working relationships. The New York Times couldn’t have summed it up better with its headline: “Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.”
Much of this information has been available since 2006 — Apple published a company press release on its web page promising to audit working conditions at the plant following a brutal wave of media criticism. In the wake of the Times’ latest write-up, they’ve done the same thing, this time with a little follow-through, and the audit apparently reported “tons of issues.” Surprised?
At the very least one might argue that in the Mt. Olive case, among others, the workers enjoy a comparative advantage over their past conditions. An Aug. 2, 2005 article in the Christian Science Monitor reported that the average apparel worker in Honduras, in spite of sweatshop conditions, makes more per day than the average citizen. The comparative advantage argument may hold weight in select cases, but not when conditions drive employees to take their own lives. That’s no advantage.
There’s a serious problem with our ownership of these products and our continued willingness to buy them. It’s an insidious form of complicity that silently tells our generation and those that follow: “It’s OK, what you don’t know can’t hurt you.” It’s our responsibility as consumers to boycott all electronics companies supplied by Foxconn, lest we continue in our current state of unconsciousness.
Tim Rabb is a senior opinion page editor