Thinking Differently on Steve Jobs’ Legacy: the Struggle of Chinese Labor Reform

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

Assembly line workers at Foxconn manufacturing facility subcontracted to Apple (photo: Kotaku)

A man, a plan, an empire: the death of a CEO can signify so much. Honorific accounts of the late Steve Jobs have been in no short supply since the Wizard of Apple’s passing last week. A tech developer and designer of the highest order, Job’s passing leaves a legacy of stunning innovation amid a complex corporate structure and a few harder-edged questions about what it truly means to change the world.

Among the litany of Jobs tributes, it might have been easy to miss Mike Daisey’s critical appraisal of Jobs’ legacy in The New York Times. While acknowledging Jobs as a genius possessed of a “brutal honesty,” Daisey addresses the often-overshadowed underpinning of the Apple operation, such as the crowds of young Chinese migrants whose tireless, anonymous work built iPhones and MacBooks in factories throughout southern China. Referencing the 2010 spike in suicides at Shenzhen’s Foxconn factory, a manufacturer of popular products by Apple, Dell, and Sony, Daisey addresses Apple’s recent history in the now infamous manufacturing region:

As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.

Daisey has a poignant encounter with one worker “whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads:

“I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on. He stroked the screen and marveled at the icons sliding back and forth, the Apple attention to detail in every pixel. He told my translator, “It’s a kind of magic.”

The worker is among the millions of Chinese who have flocked to the factories of southern China seeking a better life through job opportunities, but their quality of life is belied by Shenzhen’s grueling factory culture, which made global headlines in a tragic rash of suicides in 2010. One year later, the abuses these factories, bosses, and local governments remain largely unreformed, while corporations remain complacent with the current conditions.

Shu Haolun’s 2001 documentary Struggle calls attention to some of the most egregious damages enacted by the factory system: the neglect of wounded workers. After arriving in Shenzen as idealistic young job seekers, the three subjects of Shu’s film suffered similarly careless factory accidents brought on by overwork-induced exhaustion that robbed them of their limbs, rendering them jobless and powerless to retaliate against their former employers. With the help of an altruistic lawyer, Zhou Litai, a former factory worker and devoted advocate for migrant rights reform, the three victims have sought compensation, but the climate for injured migrants remains resolutely crooked. The supply of workers in China far outweighs the demand, Zhou reasons for atrocious working conditions and a lackadaisical approach to injured workers, and people become disposable.

Films like Struggle and media coverage of incidents like the Foxconn suicides – as well as a recent documentary project entitled Dreamwork China offering a more personal portrait of the ambitions and travails of ba-ling-hou and jiu-ling-hou (born in the 80s and 90s) Foxconn workers – endeavor to increase public awareness of this manufacturing framework as a human rights necropolis steadily cranking out goods for global consumption, but much responsibility is being shirked by the very corporations who commission these goods. Steve Jobs was a busy man with a future to design, but, by most recent accounts, he was not a man shy of self-aware, self-critical reflection. As a CEO, Steve Jobs served a symbol of his company: the Apple with a missing bite embodying the lowliest workers to the Silicon Valley bigwigs to the products they so proudly turned out. Remembering a man whose life and work made such strides to connect people and use technology to improve lives, it’s also worth recognizing the intense hardships – coupled with an undeniable struggle for basic human rights, voices, and social progress – withstood by those who supported the most essential infrastructure of his corporation. As Daisey concludes of Jobs:

If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.

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