Apple released its annual Supplier Responsibility Report which discusses the status of its manufacturing partners (mainly in China) on issues of worker rights, factory conditions, etc. Not so coincidentally, last week's This American Life episode centered around Mike Daisey and his one man show about what he saw while on a visit to Shenzen where many of the big manufacturing companies are located.
Though the first act of the episode was meant to illicit an emotional response in favor of the poor downtrodden workers, the second act painted a much more balanced and realstic view of the plight of workers in these plants. The fact of the matter is that places like Foxconn have improved the lives of many of these people. Are conditions as good as they are in first world countries? Of course not, but that's a very first world opinion. Ask anyone who used to make $50 a month in the country side doing back breaking labor if they would trade it for a $250 a month job doing a different kind of hard labor in Shenzen. It's a no brainer. As consumers in developed nations, we should absolutely push for better working conditions for the people who make our goods. But progress takes time and why should we expect developing countries to suddenly leapfrog steps in their industrialization when countries like the US did not.
The one hopeful thing I took from the episode was that cold hard economics and not journalists or people like Mike Daisey will ultimately effect greater change. As workers become more skilled, they also have more options to work at places that have better working conditions. If places like Foxconn wish to retain these skilled employees that they've spent time and money training, they'll need to improve the environment these people do business in. That, more than a sensationalistic one man show, will be how China and other developing countries move forward.