Tooth Fairy

Question: how much money did the tooth fairy bring you for the last tooth you lost? A quarter? A dollar?

What, you say you don’t believe in the tooth fairy? How can you not believe in the tooth fairy? After all, chances are you’ve received evidence of the tooth fairy’s existence. I bet there’s any number of you who found that the tooth you placed under the pillow was exchanged into something else overnight. I used to get a quarter, myself, though I imagine the rates have changed.

Why if you don’t believe in the tooth fairy, you probably don’t believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Clause, either. Yet you’ve eaten chocolate eggs, unwrapped a present come Christmas morning. Of course, the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause are from a certain culture, but I’m sure there are comparable figures for most cultures. With each, there was tangible proof of the figure’s existence. How can you not believe in these fairy tales when you’ve held a quarter, a gold wrapped chocolate egg, or a pretty present?

That’s why I like weblogging so much. We all have the capacity for unrestricted belief. We all believe in fairy tales.

Fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you…

Take, for instance, the recent report from Apple that reassured us one and all that the labor practices of iPod city are fair and just. Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, in an example of astute and comprehensive journalism, writes in a post titled Apple does the right thing:

To Apple’s credit, they assembled an independent inspection team that visited the factories and did in-depth, random audits of working conditions.

Of course, the independent inspection team wasn’t independent: it was made up of Apple employees. Apple employees officially reviewing factories making Apple products.

What did they find at the Apple factories?

The team reviewed personnel files and hiring practices and found no evidence whatsoever of the use of child labor or any form of forced labor.

China has a large pool of available adult workers. Factories rarely need to employee children below the legal age limit of 16. Instead, those children that do have to work, work at smaller, unregulated industries and farms, as the adults move on to the better regulated, and perhaps more importantly, scrutinzed factories such as those run by Foxconn.

However, this isn’t Apple’s problem, this is China’s problem. Well, I suppose one could say this is all our problem if we consider this whole thing from a social responsibility viewpoint. But that’s so Web 1.0, as well as being such a downer, and this is a story of fairy tales.

…if you’re young at heart…

Back to the report:

The manufacturing facility supports over 200,000 employees (Apple uses less than 15% of that capacity) and has the services you’d expect in a medium city. The campus includes factories, employee housing, banks, a post office, a hospital, supermarkets, and a variety of recreational facilities including soccer fields, a swimming pool, TV lounges and Internet cafes. Ten cafeterias are also located throughout the campus offering a variety of menu choices such as fresh vegetables, beef, seafood, rice, poultry, and stir-fry noodles. In addition, employees have access to 13 different restaurants on campus. Employees were pleased with the variety and quality of food offerings.

The supplier owns and leases dormitories that are offered at no charge to employees, provided they help in cleaning common areas to maintain the facility. Workers are not required to live in these dormitories, although the majority do. Our team randomly selected and inspected a wide range of dormitories (both supplier-owned on-campus and off-site leased facilities) that collectively house over 32,000 people. Buildings are separated by gender, with female dorms containing a private bathroom/shower for each room and male dorm rooms typically sharing bathroom/shower facilities. The dorms have TV rooms, potable water, private lockers, free laundry service, and public telephones. Many also have ping-pong and snooker tables, and sitting/reading areas. All of the on-campus dorms have air conditioning. Visitors are permitted in the dorms, although a sign-in process is used for security purposes.

Hmmm, I wondered: why no photos? I’m personally curious to see exactly what an acceptable dormitory looks like. For instance, how many people share a room? Are there libraries in addition to TV rooms? What about families–is there any facility set aside for married couples, or a couple with a child?

I watch as the Ford factory here in St. Lou, the one that’s being closed down to move the work overseas, ends its shift. The folks come out, usually laughing, talking with each other about what the kids did last night, or the plans with the Missus or Mister over the weekend. Work is a part of life, but so is family, friends, romance, kids.

According to Lee Siu Hin who visited China, we must not use our standards, though, to judge labor in China. It’s different there:

How can western activists accurately understand the complex labor situation in China?

Unlike in many other countries, in factories in China the employer generally provides free food (lunch) and housing for the workers (the housing and the factory are always next to each other). This is an established part of Chinese labor culture, and one of the ways employers attract workers to come to work for them. It is a plus because as long as migrant workers have jobs, they will not go hungry or homeless, unlike what happens in Tijuana, Mexico, where workers need to travel for miles from slums across the city to go to work.

He mentions one high-tech factory where the dormitories house 8 people to a room. This is, I gather, an acceptable ratio of people to private room in 2001. I wonder what it is in 2006. I also wondered when I read this: are there terra cotta dormitories, then, among the other artifacts found from China’s past, if such is the way of life in China?

In addition, some research showed that if a company does provide dormitory living and food, these have to be provided as a benefit, and not included in the calculations for wages. This is Chinese law. The Gizmodo writer seems to think this is a good deal:

The most interesting finding is that the facilities offer dormitories for employees to live in, rent-free, along with recreation facilities, cafeterias, lounges, Internet cafes, a post office, a hospital, a supermarket and even a freaking swimming pool. Sounds like a pretty good place to work, in China at least.

So, uh, Gawker. You guys going to pay for my rent and hook me up with a sweet swimming pool?

I think it would be a wonderful idea if we convinced Apple and Foxconn to hire this writer to work in the Shenzen factory for, say, a three month period. It could be a vacation of sorts.

(update Nick’s also up for a vacation. I bet I could start up a business for busy SillyValley types: Rest and relax in beautiful Shenzhen province; internet access free; no distractions; plenty of time for ping pong.)

Nyquist Capital writes:

The bottom line is what appears to a sheltered American as exploitation is really a ticket to a life away from subsistence farming with no running water, no indoor plumbing, no stable diet. Read about life in New York City during the late 1800’s and you will find conditions far worse than the ones that exist in China today.

Yes, using New York labor practices in the late 1800’s as a measuring stick with which to judge labor practices in the world today is a novel approach. I wonder that the UN didn’t think of this?

As for the actual working conditions, the Apple report states:

We found no instances of forced overtime and employees confirmed in interviews that they could decline overtime requests without penalty. We did, however, find that employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct, which limits normal workweeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off each week. We reviewed seven months of records from multiple shifts of different productions lines and found that the weekly limit was exceeded 35% of the time and employees worked more than six consecutive days 25% of the time. Although our Code of Conduct allows overtime limit exceptions in unusual circumstances, we believe in the importance of a healthy work-life balance and found these percentages to be excessive.

Employees work in factories that are generally bright, clean and modern with air-conditioned assembly line areas, and are provided with protective gear. There’s an employee grievance process in place, including a telephone hotline, a CEO mailbox for complaints and employee suggestion boxes.

According to what I could find, Chinese labor laws set a 40 hour work week, with 24 hours off on the weekend. Even at 60 hours a week, and one day off, this is in violation of Chinese labor laws. But what’s an hour, or two, among friends?

As for working conditions, the plant is manufacturing electronic equipement. I’ve yet to see an electronic manufacturer that doesn’t provide temperature controls and a clean environment. This doesn’t mean, though, that the environment is setup in such a way to be healthy for the employees.

For instance, if the work is highly repetitive, this could and will lead to repetitive motion injuries that can cripple a person for life if continued long enough. In addition, if employees are not given breaks at regular times, other stress related injuries and health related problems will also occur. There was nothing in the report on this. In fact, looking at the report, there is a wealth of information that is not given. No photos, no mention of breaks, no description of tasks, no description of how anonymous the interview procedure was.

However, webloggers believe in fairy tales, and that dreams come true. Daaa da da daaa…fairy tales can come true

Fairy tales can come true
It can happen to you
If you’re young at heart

For it’s hard you will find
To be narrow of mind
If you’re young at heart

You can go to extremes
With impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams
Fall apart at the seams

And life gets more exciting
with each passing day
And love is either in your heart
Or on it’s way

Don’t you know that it’s worth
Every treasure on earth
To be young at heart

For as rich as you are
It’s much better by far
To be young at heart

And if you should survive to 105
Look at all you’ll derive
Out of being alive

And here is the best part
You’ve had a head start
If you are among the very
Young at heart

And if you should survive to 105
Think of all you’ll derive
Out of being alive

And here is the best part
You’ve had a head start
If you are among the very
Young at heart…

Ah that Tony Bennett, what a singer. And what a fairy tale! Thanks to Apple, we now know we can buy, buy, buy iPods with nary a qualm, with visions of happy Chinese workers swimming in pools dancing through our heads.

Of course, it’s not as if we would not buy, buy, buy anyway. I once asked those who persistently complain about the entertainment industry’s restrictive enforcement of copyright law and use of DRM, if they would forgo buying new music or movies in order to force the entertainment industry into backing off. After all, grouped together, we could bring about true change. Couldn’t we?

But imagine my surprise to find I had no takers. No, not one person who complains about these things is willing to stop buying products from the very companies that have earned their disdain. Why one could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that most of the time, we’re loud mouthed opinion givers with absolutely no real commitment to the things we profess to hold dear.

The vision of many social activists that there was, in fact, a market for virtue — and that consumers could be counted on to “vote” their values through their purchasing decisions — was always unrealistic. Consumers primarily choose which products to buy on the basis of price, quality and convenience. They rarely pay attention to the social or environmental practices of the company that produces them. Only a handful of companies have ever been rewarded by consumers for being responsible or punished for acting irresponsibly. While a few “ethical brands,” such as Fair Trade coffee, do exist, their American market shares are extremely modest. In short, consumers cannot be counted on to drive corporate social responsibility.

According to the article in SF Gate, it’s the Chinese government’s fault. It’s up to it to change. It’s not up to Google, or Microsoft, or Apple, or any tech company to enforce human rights and humane working environments (which one would think includes schools, parks, maybe even the sound of a child’s laugh). It’s not up to consumers to buy responsibly. And it’s not up to webloggers to actually do more than write about these things in order to fulfill our social responsibilities.

Fairy tales can come true…

But for every fairy tale that can come true there’s always a scrooge, a naysayer, a dark cloud without a silver lining. The BBC writes:

The plant supports 200,000 employees, less than 15% of which work on making the iPod, and 32,000 staff live on-site at the plant.

Mr Kuczkiewicz said: “We are not impressed either by the report or by the findings of Apple.”

“Apple interviewed just 100 people out of the estimated 30,000 iPod workers.

“We do not know the conditions in which the interviews were held. We have serious reservations about the report.”

The audit team said staff earned “at least the local minimum wage” and that half of the 100 people it interviewed earned above that amount.

Apple did not specify what the minimum wage for the area was but the original report in the Mail on Sunday said staff earned as little as £27 a month.

Apple may not have been very precise in its reporting, but it has brought in Verité. Formed in 1995, this organization will oversee the plant and work with it to ensure that a minimum level of standards are met to protect the worker’s health. Only so many people to a dormitory room. No need to have to worry about messy labor unions. Healthily filtered Internet access. No more than 12 hour days. Five days off a year to visit family, parents, children. That sort of thing.

Good working conditions. A healthy way of life.

As Ars Technica writes:

Apple apparently recognizes that this investigation and corrective measures are merely the first steps in improving working conditions for their own factories overseas. With the promise to complete audits on all iPod and Mac production facilities sometime in 2006, Apple is, at the very least, making the necessary public move to show that it is practicing the social responsibility that we have all come to expect from the company.

Fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you…

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