J. Daniel Watkins, Columnist

So far in 2012, working conditions in Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant have dominated headlines in the news almost daily. It is largely relevant to our society, due to American companies having large contracts with the Foxconn. In particular, and taking most of the spotlight, is Apple.  

Just this week, ABC aired its Nightline episode of the particular plant. This episode was the network’s first video showing the inside of the plant. While they were not the first to cover it — I suggest listening to This American Life’s episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” — they have provided the first filming inside the factory. 

Last but not least, Apple has also asked the Fair Labor Association to step in and examine the working conditions of the factory. So what’s all the trouble?

Shenzhen is known for its production of technology, and Foxconn’s isn’t the only factory in town. Stories of Foxconn suicides have trickled in over the past few years, finally coming to a head and major publicity in the past six months. Concerns over working conditions are not new, but these particular examples are current.

One person worried about working conditions might be asking why Apple is doing so well, yet paying so little, while the opposing opinion might proclaim, “who cares?” Ignoring the latter, the first question brings a serious issue to light: Is it time America, to get serious about paying an exorbitant amount of dollars for an iPad in order for people to live an equally high quality of life globally? Or are there concessions to make if the first is an unsustainable model?   Frankly, I don’t think a large number of consumers would take the issue to heart, then proceed to pay a larger than noticeable jump in price for a product coming from a Shenzhen product line (portable Apple products, gaming consoles, etc.).

Part of the reason companies build there — and in such a hands-on fashion, for example, how iPhones are put together in 141 steps, mostly by hand — is due to the efficiency. These supply and manufacturing chains are suited better than any to large tech companies’ needs. When getting a product from non-existent to market, supply chains and manufacturing takes up most of the time, and as with most businesses, companies wish it to be as efficient as can be. 

This is especially true if you are Apple, and demand for your products seems like it may never stop growing. After all, it is these massive markets that can sustain the kind of employment that these plants have, and shrinking the market would greatly reduce their ability to do so.   Would it be so bad to pay more for electronics and raise wages and proceed to have fewer people with high-end electronics?  It depends on who you ask.

There are those who would say it is largely greed that drives these workers into terrible positions (you can likely find comments like this on any news outlet’s online version of a related story).  

On the other side there are people, such as The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof, who believes factories, which seem so awful to outsiders, do more good than people realize.

Giving people the ability to work inside, expanding women’s earning power or just a general stronger income are good things that would not happen if not for these plants. 

“Sure,” you might respond, “But it’s just the lesser of two evils.” Is it though?  

Until the Fair Labor Association assessment provides a fuller examination, we won’t have the definitive statement on how bad things are or aren’t.  

I’d like to examine the idea that the ‘lesser of two evils problem’ is a loaded criticism. Starting these aforementioned positives among evil things immediately stacks the argument against them.

I think financially empowering minorities and especially women, along with creating jobs for those without, or those that are stuck in a harsh environment, are good things. And if someone has a 12-hour workday, sometimes six or seven of them a week, I don’t think it is automatically a tragedy.

That being said, I do not mean to say concerns over working conditions are a bad thing. I think they have their place, and I don’t want to limit that, I only hope that its place among reason is not flooded by the cries of those with jobs, in other markets, other countries or other fields with better pay. The whole world cannot be middle class America, and I remain unconvinced that it should.

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