Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Who are the iSlaves?

On 19 September 2014, Apple launched the iPhone 6 globally. From the long queue in front of Apple’s flagship store in Covent Garden in London, it is obvious that the  attraction of the iPhone still grabs many people, despite rain or wind or whatever the weather. Meanwhile, Sacom also issued a public announcement disclosing the slave like working conditions of Chinese workers labouring to produce iPhone 6’s bigger touch screen, and clearer camera resolution. Looking back, my blog of 1 October 2012, exactly two years ago, already discussed the labour conditions of Apple’s main producer, Foxconn.  The purpose of this blog is not to repeat what Sacom researchers have observed, the conditions of slavery in China that lie behind all the iproducts, but to look at the mentality of consumers. I would argue that the iSlaves are not those workers struggling with poor conditions, but those people waiting in front of the Apple shops every time a new product is released.
It is difficult to avoid using sweatshop products nowadays, because Foxconn (Apple’s biggest subcontractor in China) produces almost all the components for not only Apple, but also Dell and Hewlett-Packard. It seems, therefore, that no matter how hard we try, we will unavoidably use products produced on an assembly line at a sweatshop somewhere in China. However, those people who were waiting in front of the Apple shop for iPhone 6 are not just into the normal technological setting. The ‘Apple fans’ are after every new Apple product: they count the days until the next release, compare the functions of every new product to the old one. They demand bigger touch screens, clearer camera resolution, smarter phone settings.  Would they care about those workers being subject to harsher work pressure, longer working hours, lesser workplace protection? I doubt it, and I think their action proved rather not.

For them, to have an iPhone 6 is important not only because the functionality of iPhone is good, but, as one of my ‘Apple fans’ friend told me: it is like having a licence to be with another group of people, it is an identity of being an information ‘have-more’. You really feel different when you have an iPhone. I am not being critical of my friend’s comment as he is a thorough ‘Apple fan’; however, there are millions of people who think similarly to my friend. They don’t just buy the product. The iPhone is ‘renovated’ all the time: not only iPhone 5, but also iPhone 5s, iPhone 5x, the push for all these changes not only coming from Apple, but also from this enormous group of ‘Apple fans’ demanding quicker, bigger and better. Otherwise, why would one have to change phone frequently if the iPhone is already of very good quality?

More importantly, all Apple’s products are synchronized, as another Apple-fan friend of mine patiently explained to me: This means the data on your Mac can be transferred to iPhone and iPad and your music onto iPod. This is great since we are so busy so if everything can be synchronized together, it is easier to manage our lives. From Bloomberg’s interview with Tim Cook, the ultimate goal is to establish a Apple Payment system, so users will be able to touch the screen of their iPhone or Apple Watch to initiate a payment. Gradually, not only this, but also the whole electronic warehouse will be controlled by iProducts. My friend who patiently explained to me the benefits of all her electronic products being synchronized to the same tune didn’t understand my question:  Why do we want to be synchronized by one system, that is the Apple system? If that is the case, then who are the slaves of these iProducts? I don’t think workers in China’s Foxconn factories will be able to be ‘enslaved’ by those iProducts, simply because they don’t have the financial capacity to purchase the products that they are making, an obvious example of alienation, from a Marxist perspective.  Here my opinion differs from Sacom’s: it is actually not that easy to qualify as an iSlave. One at least has to have the capacity to purchase the whole set of iProducts, regularly purchase new products, and most crucially, willingly to submit control of one’s life to a mega corporate system: Apple!

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