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Apple's China factory conditions need perspective

It may not be up to Western standards, but locals say Apple's Chinese factory is a good place to work.

The New York Times tried to stir things up over the weekend with a lengthy investigation into the working conditions at Apple’s manufacturing plants in China. The story detailed all the gruesome details at supplier companies such as Foxconn: unsafe working environments, unfair overtime, overcrowding in dormitories, violations of employments codes and so on.

It’s a damning story, intended to appeal to peoples’ consciences when it comes to the electronics they buy. It is, after all, hard to feel warm and fuzzy about your new iPad when you think of the human cost that went into making it.

But the article is also a good example of tall poppy syndrome, where the media builds someone or something up, only to cut them down. Few newspapers have cheered on Apple more over the years than the Times, often through columnists such as David Pogue, who frequently gets accused of being a fanboy. It’s funny, then, that the factory story contains little context and historical perspective.

For one, there’s little mention of what Foxconn employees make and how that compares to the average Chinese worker. Such details are a little harder to find in mainstream media articles, which seem to relish in reporting just how bad workers at Apple’s suppliers have it.

The Times story cites one worker who makes about $22 (U.S.) a day, or about $400 a month, which is close to other examples. The most recent story I could find, on ITProPortal from a year ago, reported that Foxconn was luring workers to its factory in Wuhan—a city of 9 million, roughly right in the middle of the country—with a monthly salary of about $420. The average salary in the city, meanwhile, is $224, which means Foxconn pays its employees about 86% more than the typical worker. That particular factory also pays about 18% higher than the national average, according to Wikipedia.

The numbers jibe with a similar story on Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory that appeared in Wired a year ago. Writer Joel Johnson got a fuller picture than the Times by speaking with a Taiwanese guide named Paul and others:

Paul has seen his share of factories in Shenzhen over the years. I ask him about Foxconn, and he echoes the sentiment I’ve heard from others: Whatever problems Foxconn has, it’s still one of the top places to work in the area. “In terms of infrastructure, Foxconn is by far the best factory in China,” he says.

That’s a perspective that shouldn’t be forgotten by those looking to damn Foxconn and Apple by association. Working conditions are clearly not up to the same level as those in the West, but that’s an impossible expectation since China is still a developing country.These are the same, or possibly even better conditions than many Western counties had during their development.

Obviously, every effort should be made to continually improve the situation, but the real question media should be asking is whether Chinese workers are better off for those factories being there in the first place.

I’ve never been to a Foxconn factory but I did travel all around China in the year that I lived there. After seeing the astonishing depths of poverty in rural areas, particularly in the west, there’s no question that many people living and working in the relatively modern urban hubs of the east have it better.

The situation is similar when it comes to global warming. The U.S. and other Western governments have been quick to condemn China on its greenhouse gas emissions, but Chinese officials aren’t wrong to point out that their country has a right to go through the same growing pains as developed nations did during their own industrialization.

There’s certainly room for improvement, but when it comes to things such as labour conditions and pollution, it’s  hypocritical for Western governments and media to play the blame-and-shame game with China, not to mention their own companies that operate there.