Monday, August 29, 2011

Steve Jobs' Biggest Success: Sweatshops & Fat Salaries

The other day I mused on the simultaneous outpourings of sadness and loss over Jack Layton & Steve Jobs and what each of them represented. As I noted at the time I am a Mac Head and a bit of a technophile/gadgetphile. Having had a few days to think about what I wrote I've decided that I was too soft on Mr. Jobs. My eyes were filled with iPhones - perhaps it's my anxious wait for the new iPhone 5/4S coming in the next few weeks - and I felt a twinge of betrayal as I typed up my blog post on a Macbook Pro. But I've broken free of Steve's evil spell and I think it's important to set the record straight.

Steve Jobs real advance was not in creating great products. Of course he realized that for Apple to survive meant leveraging cutting edge tech that was nonetheless ready for the consumer market. He hired Jonathon Ive to design stuff that looked sexy and Steve thought outside of the box when it came to things like ways to transmit audio and, ultimately, video. The creation of the smartphone was, perhaps, his biggest masterstroke and a game-changer.

All that is true but the man who to whom Steve Jobs handed the throne at Apple wasn't Jonathon Ive the innovative designer, it was Tim Cook the Chief Operating Officer. Cook's claim to fame is not technological innovation or having a finger on the pulse of the American (world?) consumer. Rather, he is the man credited with cranking up Apple's bottom line by neo-liberalizing the hell out of the company - getting Apple out of manufacturing and outsourcing everything that wasn't nailed down, particularly to Asia and other low wage economies. Of course, that shouldn't surprise us, Cook is also on the board at Nike, another notorious sweatshop company. He is, in other words, a hatchet man. So much for all that hippie love and Levi's jeans wearing regular guy shit that Apple was supposed to represent. In this sense, Apple really led the way in decimating the American tech industry and putting manufacturing into the hands of workers living in repressive low wage regions like China where trying to form an independent union can get you some serious jail time. According to this article in Working In These Times:

According to former Intel CEO Andy Grove, in the 1970s there were about 150,000 Americans working in the computer industry. Between the 1970s and now, the computer industry economic footprint grew from being a $20 billion a year industry to $200 billion a year. At the peak of U.S. employment in the computer industry, there were two million people employed in making computers in the United States.
Now, with most computer manufacturing being done overseas, there are only 150,000 Americans employed in the computer industry, according to Grove, who wants to reverse the trend.
In These Times is, frankly, a bit obsessed with moving tech jobs back to the USA, as though that is a solution. Workers in the USA have also suffered declines in real wages over the past two generations. In fact, if the issue were social justice, Chinese workers could rightly point to the fact that their incomes have doubled or trebled in the same time period and wildcat strikes have not only been more widespread than in the USA, they have won bigger wage gains. "Buy American" is simply not a viable solution for the problem of neo-liberal wage and benefit cuts. However, it is certainly the case that while wage rises have been significant in China in the past 20 years, wages remain low and conditions are still often appalling as an investigation by the UK Daily Mail discovered:

Yet, amid all the fanfare and celebrations this week (for the release of the iPhone 4 when the article was written), there was one sour, niggling note: reports of a spate of suicides at a secretive Chinese complex where Jobs's iPhone, iPod and iPad - Apple's new state-of-the-art slimline computer - are built and assembled.
With 11 workers taking their lives in sinister circumstances, Jobs acted swiftly to quell a potential public relations disaster.
Stressing that he found the deaths 'troubling' and that he was 'all over it', the billionaire brushed aside suggestions that the factory was a sweatshop.
'You go in this place and it's a factory but, my gosh, they've got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools,' he said. 'For a factory, it's pretty nice.'
His definition of 'nice' is questionable and likely to have his American workers in uproar if such conditions were imposed upon them.
Foxconn employs 420,000 workers at its Shenzhen plant where conditions are very basic with no air-conditioning
For, as Apple's leader was taking a bow on the world stage, the Mail was under cover inside this Chinese complex. And we encountered a strange, disturbing world where new recruits are drilled along military lines, ordered to stand for the company song and kept in barracks like battery hens - all for little more than £20 a week.
But while the workers who make Apple products lack the right to form independent unions and make less than $40 a week, not so Tim Cook who helped create the sweatshop. According to Forbes Magazine, Tim Cook received total compensation of $59 million in 2010. No, you didn't read that wrong - fifty-nine million dollars. As a reward for his new role as the CEO of Apple, Cook was given a little gift: 100,000 shares in Apple. At its present value those shares are worth $383 million. Just to put that in perspective, last year Tim Cook was paid the same amount as 28,365 workers at Foxconn who made the iPhone, iPad, etc etc. And that, really, sums up Steve Jobs' greatest hit.

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