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Our iPad hypocrisy

iPadWe love our beautiful high-tech machines so much that we are prepared to turn a blind eye to the conditions endured by workers to assemble them, writes R. Michael Gosselin.

14 August 2011

I'm writing this on an iPad 2, black, with Verizon 3G and a red leather Smart Cover. It's only got 32 GB. Even though the price was still less than many laptops, forgoing the most powerful model allowed me to add a wireless keyboard and handy charging dock. Certainly, I coveted the 64 GB monster, so that I could store my entire collection of Sergei Eisenstein movies, but I'm trying not to think of myself as a mass consumer.

I read up on the iPad 2 for months before actually making a purchase, and one of the things I learned, besides the fact that iPads were great for educators, was that three workers at the Chengdu plant in China died recently when explosive dust that is created by the polishing process collected in the air vents and...well...exploded.

According to InformationWeek, the plant is the property of Foxconn/Hon Hai Technology Group, which had set a new record in its construction (76 days). On its web site, Foxconn boasts that they "provide the lowest 'total cost' solution to increase the affordability of electronics products for all mankind," a rather grandiose goal, to be sure, made a bit more achievable now that the All Mankind List is three people shorter than it used to be. Foxconn doesn't want it to get much shorter, though: they recently starting requiring employees to sign a pledge promising they won't commit suicide at work.

Anyway, when I first read about the explosion, I became concerned. The iPads, I knew, were scarce, driving demand to a fever pitch, and the last thing I wanted to do was order one, and have to wait two or three weeks, when there's an Apple Store at the Eastview Mall, just a few miles down the highway. But, I needn't have worried. As Brian White, an analyst at Ticonderoga Securities, quickly reported,

Our current view is that this tragedy is likely to have some impact on iPad 2 production; however, we believe Hon Hai has the flexibility to shift manufacturing back to the Shenzhen facility if necessary...As such, we currently don't expect a material impact to Apple's iPad 2 shipments, but we will continue to monitor the situation.

Problem solved.

Or is it? According to a report that came out shortly before the explosion, by a Hong Kong-based group called SACOM—Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour—the Chengdu plant was dangerous, workers were not trained properly, they suffered from a variety of health problems that were ignored, and, "even though they have worn gloves, their hands (were) still covered by dust and so (were) their face and clothes."

To anyone even remotely aware of American labor history, all of this seems terribly familiar, an almost nostalgic look back at a time before unions and federal safeguards made manufacturers pack up their locks, stocks, and barrels, and flee to hungry nations that had never heard of minimum wage and the Triangle Waist Factory.

It's like the Gilded Age all over again, for them, and they know that as long as the Eastviews are full, the newspapers empty, and the oceans wide, people like me won't ask questions.

In these terms, a trip to the mall is a little bit like the King Cotton diplomacy that the Confederacy tried on Great Britain back in the day: help us break the Federal blockades, convince your textile workers to stop complaining about slave labor, and we promise not to cut off the supply of cotton that keeps your mills running.

As South Carolina's James Hammond said, in 1858, "What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with it."

The Confederacy, not known for rhetorical subtlety, overplayed its hand. But what if no iPads were furnished for three months? The question is moot, of course; very few people are screaming about factory conditions in China, and neither Apple nor Foxconn has to browbeat anyone into silence by withholding electronics. They know that there are many people out there like me—saps who claim to care about workers' rights, but, occasionally, are ready to slip into a little hypocrisy, covered up with red leather.

It really is a beautiful machine, after all, polished to a fine, lustrous black. As I type, parts of my face become reflected in the frame, and, if I turn my gaze just a tiny bit to the right, the light bouncing off the thing is positively blinding.

R. Michael Gosselin is an instructor of English at a community college in upstate New York. He blogs about teaching, language, and social issues on Open Salon and at and


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