Update: Read this first. It turns out that Mike Daisey was making stuff up.
Chris Blattman finds himself on the horns of a familiar dilemma:
Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.
That is the tagline from this week’s This American Life, freely available as an mp3 this week. Often funny but also often horrifying: Child workers, terrible workplace injuries, and police state tactics. They have released reports on the Apple subcontractor from October 2010, May 2011, and September 2011.
I am of two minds. If even a tenth of the abuses are systematically true, then even the most ardent capitalist among you should be incensed.
On the other hand, I am in the midst of a randomized control trial of factory labor in Ethiopia. One reason is because I believe–and the early results suggest–that the improvements in poverty and work conditions and risk and well-being are huge. Huge huge.
When this choice is presented as a simple binary it is a very unappealing one. Buy iPods and support a system that is exploitative and abusive. Don’t buy iPods and leave people condemned to rural poverty. It’s an agonising choice. For what it’s worth I think the least worst option here is to buy the iPod. But the least worst option in this binary is not the same as the actual best available option in reality. There is a third way. It’s simple.
Continued global trade but with workers’ rights. Workers in factories in China and Ethopia would still receive low wages but they probably wouldn’t be quite as low as is currently the case, and their working conditions definitely wouldn’t be so bad.
And how could this happen? In a world of developing countries that were democratic and well governed, it would be easy: trades unions to offset the bargaining advantage of bosses; and the progressive implementation of some workplace safety laws brought about via the democratic process.
Trouble is, neither China and Ethiopia are democratic or well governed (although I guess the situation is slightly better in Ethiopia???).
Then what? This is where I think there is a very real role for consumer activism in developed countries. As much as possible, avoid products produced in situations where workers’ rights are violated. As much as possible, buy fair trade products. Write to companies to let them know that you’re doing this and why you’re doing this. Don’t tell them “don’t make stuff in China?”; tell them “make stuff in China but protect your workers?” Share this information. Fund entities devoted to obtaining this information.
This is an imperfect, partial solution. But it’s better than either of the horns of the dilemma presented above.
As a footnote. The other potential improvement here is to write labour standards into trade agreements (and actually follow up on this). Most economists hate this (“oh noes don’t limit teh free trade!”). Me I’m kind of in favour: I think in theory it would work. Although in practice, in the messy world of enforcement, political economy, unequal power, and trade agreement negotiations, it may well not.