Boycotting Apple Won't Help the Rioting Foxconn Workers Who Built Your iPhone

Late Sunday night, a riot involving 2,000 workers broke out at a Foxconn plant in northern China that manufactures the iPhone 5, reportedly sparked by a fight between workers and security guards. Like the parade of horror stories out of Chinese factories, the riots once again underscored the notoriously dismal labor conditions of the young workers who make our gadgets. But it also highlighted a growing level of worker unrest in China. More than ever, Chinese workers are struggling to help themselves, which could improve labor conditions more than a thousand tearjerking This American Life exposes.

Last week, the day after the release of the iPhone 5, I interviewed China labor scholar Eli Friedman, assistant professor at Cornell's ILR School, about Apple and China. New reports about forced student laborers at a Foxconn plant that assembles iPhones, skillfully timed to the iPhone's release, had sent another spasm of guilt through the spines of do-gooder consumers like myself. I was curious what we Western consumers might be able to do to help fight the injustice that went into making our phones. Not much, it turns out. According to Friedman, the only meaningful change will come about through the often risky and illegal actions by Chinese workers themselves. (Strikes are banned in China.) If this weekend's Foxconn riot is a sign of an increasingly intense struggle for better working conditions in China, U.S. consumers will have to be content to play Angry Birds on the sidelines.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Labor groups in China recently accused Foxconn of using forced student labor to assemble iPhones at their Zhengzhou plant in north-central China. What do you make of the latest reports of worker abuse?

No surprise at all. Foxconn has been expanding really rapidly, mostly in central and western China. And given the size of the factories—the one in Shenzhen has around 400,000 workers—it's just a huge volume of workers that you need. So there's been pressure on local government officials in these towns to make sure that Foxconn has a sufficient labor supply. They've been also leaning on these schools, which are supposed to be providing technical education to students, to send those students to Foxconn factories. This has been happening for a while.

There's an idea, especially among liberals, that American consumers should be pressuring Apple to improve conditions at Foxconn factories—we should stage a boycott or start petitions. But you've said that isn't really the answer to these problems. What's wrong with that idea?

I have no problem with people paying attention to this stuff. But I think the idea that we as individual consumers in the West can have a major impact on labor issues in China has already been basically disproven by what's gone on in the past 20 years. This sort of approach of doing things has been happening since the mid 90s with Nike, and it's still a pretty raw deal to be a Chinese worker, for a number of reasons. The first I think is sort of an attitudinal question. It's a personal opinion, but I think it's a little bit paternalistic and self-referential to be like, 'I as a consumer should be helping out these poor, disempowered Chinese workers.'

There's other reasons I'm not at all optimistic about that as a strategy for improving things for workers. Take your iPhone, or any smart phone. These are incredibly complex devices. People are always talking about Foxconn, but Foxconn's only an assembler. What Foxconn actually does is, a bunch of parts show up there and Foxconn slaps them together. Foxconn's not producing your screen, this button on the side, the circuit board, all that stuff's being produced other places. You have multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors going down. There are transport workers who are driving the screen from one factory in China to another. How are those workers being treated? There's this assumption, which maybe comes from free market economics, of perfect information. The fact is, no consumer in the West has the capacity to gather enough information to be able to make a rational choice about which phones are made ethically, and which ones are not made ethically. It's impossible. I study this stuff. I spent a lot of time in China. When I go to buy a cell phone, I have absolutely no idea which one is more ethically produced.

So should Western consumers just feel free to buy their phone guilt-free?

I mean the way you interact with your own consumerism is up to you. Sometimes when I say this stuff, liberals get upset at me and are like, Oh, you're letting Apple off the hook. I'm not, I think that Apple is very consciously moving to places where labor is really cheap and where workers are highly politically repressed. So I think that pressure should be brought to bear on major corporations, absolutely. But resolving the labor conflict is a collective problem. And when you shift it to individual consumers, there's no more power. I just don't think that individuals have that much capacity to change things. Keeping pressure on big companies is a fine thing, but ultimately the thing that's gonna change it is worker's own self-activity.

If the options that U.S. consumers have are not powerful enough, what will change the labor conditions in China?

As has been the case in any labor struggle, the way things get better is when workers do things for themselves. They organize themselves and build up some real power on the shop floor. Freedom of association. The ability to have any organization and a voice in your own work place. This is tried and true. This has happened for 200 years in the West. If Apple really wanted to make a difference for what it meant to be a Foxconn worker, they could force Foxconn to hold democratic union elections. The government might not like that, but they could try that. I don't think they're going to do that.

Is there currently a big push for freedom of association to be allowed in China?

Freedom of association is already protected in the Chinese constitution, but it's not effective. The unions in China are all controlled by the Communist party from Beijing all the way down to your shop floor. But one thing that's happened in the past two years is that workers in some instances have been going on strike and have been putting forth a demand which is usually phrased as "reorganizing the enterprise level unit." What that means is, they're not calling for independent unions outside of the official federation, but they're saying, We want to have direct elections for the guy who represents us at the enterprise level. That's the guy who would engage in collective bargaining and various kinds of negotiations. This didn't happen too much before 2010, but it's happening more.

There was a big strike wave in the auto industry in 2010 and I have some interviews from Honda worker where they were saying, "We had considered establishing our own independent union, but then decided it was too dangerous." There's something of a change of consciousness, where workers are realizing it's not just that we want laws to be followed. It's not even that we want increases in our wages above and beyond the minimum wage. They are now beginning to understand why it's important to have a voice in the workplace as well for ongoing situations.

How have conditions for the kinds of workers we're talking about been changing recently, are they getting better?

In most places in coastal China [China's traditional manufacturing hub] wages have gone up. For most of the previous 20 years wages were falling in real terms. And that's changed since about 2009. That's driven by a number of factors, including workers going on strike and demanding bigger wages. Part of it is just labor market dynamics because there's a shortage of available workers, so a lot of workers are voting with their feet. They're saying, "If this job is not good I'm not going to take it," or are going elsewhere so that's caused employers to have to raise wages. But it's still a situation where if you're working in one of these major metropolitan areas [on the coast] you're not making enough money to have a decent life. You're not making enough to get married and have a family.

The major thing that Foxconn has done, which is to some extent indicative of a broader trend, is a lot of capital relocation from these coastal areas, like Shanghai and Shenzhen, into the interior. They're doing that for that a number of reasons: the cost of labor and land are cheaper. In the interior the local governments are more excited about trying to attract investment—if you're in Sichuan Province on the west, you'd get more tax breaks; you get the government mobilized to try and find workers for you. So a lot of these factories are moving into the interior.

Workers will now, to a greater extent, be living in the same place they work. Whereas now migrant workers come from interior and western provinces to the coast. And when they're in these big cities in the coastal areas they don't have access to public goods like education, health care, housing and subsidies. But if they're back in the interior, they might be more in their own community, and things might be a little bit more stable.

You're not optimistic about consumer activism, but is there anything going on the U.S. that is addressing the larger issues of worker empowerment—something that even people who aren't Chinese workers can get behind?

You have this program called Designated Suppliers Program, which is run by the Worker's Rights Consortion in D.C. There's a lot of student activists on campus who are trying to get universities to only source their apparel from companies that have been vetted by the Designated Suppliers Program. (None of these factories are in China, they're mostly in Latin America.) The DSP goes in and ensure that there's a union and that the union is fairly democratic, it's not just controlled by management. The somewhat optimistic thing about the Designated Supplies Program is that it restructures the market in an institutional way, so you have a university at the other end, not individuals. I think that some of that stuff is worth looking into. Doing it with apparel is a lot easier than electronics, as a shirt is pretty straightforward, whereas a phone is incredibly complex.

In your article on Chinese labor struggles in the radical journal Jacobin you say that we in the U.S. usually think of Chinese workers as either helpless, exploited victims or the people who are going destroy America by underselling everyone. But neither of those views are helpful or accurate. How should we as U.S. consumers be thinking about Chinese workers in the context of them making all our stuff?

Chinese workers face many of the same pressures that American workers do, where employers want to push down wages or reduce benefits. That's exactly the way American workers have been dealt with for the past 23 years as well. So I think it's a mistake, maybe an understandable mistake, but a mistake when people in the US say, "Oh they're stealing our jobs." It's not the Chinese workers that are stealing jobs, right, it's American companies which are taking jobs from the US and bringing them to China. And they're doing it for obvious reasons. Because a lot of times you have decent jobs here, which maybe have been unionized and have benefits and in China you can pay workers a lot less. So it's clearly a major victory for big American companies, but both sides suffer as a result. I try to get people to think beyond this narrow nationalist perspective of our workers, our jobs. Their workers, their jobs. Chinese workers want the same things that American workers want.