Recently, Foxconn, the company that makes iPads for Apple (as well as smartphones and other gadgets for other companies), has become the subject of scrutiny over working conditions in the company’s Chinese plants, where workers have expressed concern over wages and working conditions, even committing suicide (or threatening mass suicide) in protest. The focus on the manufacturing of one of the more popular gadgets in the US (and globally) has accelerated in recent months, thanks in part to a story on Foxconn’s Chinese plants that NPR’s This American Life ran in January (and that it has since retracted). Just yesterday, official video from the Foxconn plants revealed just how iPads in China are made in what is likely at least in part an attempt to counter some of the stories regarding working conditions.
Lost in this focus is the fact that Foxconn has also opened a plant in Brazil (on “Steve Jobs Avenue,” of course, reinforcing the cult of the late face of Apple). The new plant has prompted Jay Green to wonder whether the new Brazilian plant could be “a model for Apple production.” The question isn’t unfair, as Brazilian labor laws and labor culture differ greatly from those in China, with Brazilian workers’ workweeks capped at 44 hours/week and with higher wages than their Chinese counterparts. As Greene notes:
Labor activists point to Foxconn’s record in Brazil to show that it and Apple can make products under lawful conditions while paying workers decent wages when the local environment requires it. And they believe that Apple and Foxconn have been taking advantage of Chinese workers simply because they believe they can get away with it.
I admit I’m often skeptical of stories that emphasize manufacturing success without providing accounts from the workers. Additionally, as the article points out, the number of workers in Foxconn plants in China dwarfs those in Brazil, and Brazilian workers are manufacturing mostly non-Apple products at this point, so there are meaningful and basic differences between manufacturing in Brazil and China.
Still, it’s definitely true that the legal structure and context of workers’ rights in Brazil is fundamentally different from those in China, and there are government regulations in Brazil that would help workers more than the Chinese government’s own stance on labor does. I’m still not willing to uncritically sing the praises of Brazil’s factory without seeing whether this regimen of production can last in the long run or what the long-term effects of the Brazilian Foxconn plant are on workers, environment, and economy in Brazil. That said, this at least seems like a step in the right direction in terms of producing modern technologies even while respecting workers’ rights, even if it doesn’t address the environmental toll of producing flatscreen TVs, iPads, and other amenities of “modern” living for the so-called “developed world.”