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CONSUMERISM/ Can we afford our Gadgets?

Most of the material goods we enjoy are affordable because they have been subsidized. The subsidy here is the donation of labor for wages that do not support a minimally adequate lifestyle.

Steve Jobs introducing the Ipad Steve Jobs introducing the Ipad

ABC’s visit to the Foxconn factory that makes iPads and iPhones has generated a lot of conversation. Obama is reputed to have asked what it would take to make iPhones in America. The New York Times wrote about how the U.S. “lost out” on iPhone work. Forbes claims that the visit to Foxconn shows why iPhones will never be made in the USA – because the U.S. worker would not want to do such a repetitive job. NPR’s Scott Simon’s radio essay ends with the important question: “What if everyone did nothing?”

My lifestyle is subsidized by the Foxconn workers
The question people do not address is money. According to company responses to the Frontline story, the entry level workers at Foxconn earn about $349 a month, with those past probation earning somewhat more. They do not have sick leave, health care, or vacation benefits, so the $349 is probably pretty close to the total labor cost. One such worker carved (“deburred”) the logo in 3000 iPads a 12-hour day, about 4 a minute. Forbes points out that this worker would probably be replaced by a machine if the work did come to America. But could we design and operate a clean-and-fast machine assembly line for as little cost as these low-paid workers? Probably not – or at least one gadget or electronics manufacturer would still be operating in the US.

One blog writes that “human costs are built into an iPad,” and it is doubly correct. Not only have people labored in inhumane circumstances. No, the reality is this: the only way to build all the gadgets at the price the rich world is able (willing) to pay – all the televisions, phones, iPods, iPads, laptops, remote controls etc. – is to avoid paying a decent wage.

Most of the material goods we enjoy are affordable because they have been subsidized. The subsidy is the donation of labor for a wage so low it does not support a minimally adequate lifestyle.

What can I do about Foxconn?
Many people want to see conditions at Foxconn – and all the others like it – improve. The Fair Labor Association and public outcry may cause some local changes – but the work itself may be shifted elsewhere. Paying higher wages and improving the factor would add a few dollars to the cost of an iPad or Blackberry or 42? television – and consumers already complain that they cost “too much.”  One or two factories may improve, but the hundreds of electronic devices that surround us will continue to be made by underpaid workers.

But does it help anyone if we stop using these devices? Not really – an unemployed Chinese worker has even less than today’s Foxconn employee.