The New York Times had an article last weekend on why Apple (in particular) and other big companies use Chinese companies for manufacturing. It isn’t that worker pay is so much lower — apparently the labor costs of an iPhone aren’t that much — but rather that Chinese manufacturing plants are so flexible that they can change what they’re making almost overnight.
There was an undertone in the article that suggested the U.S. has failed on the flexibility front as well as on turning out people with right skills for these jobs. And in his blog Paul Krugman mentioned the article’s discussion of the value of a cluster of manufacturing plants, which means that one plant can get the materials it needs right away from another.
But here’s the part of the article that got me, the one that told me why these companies can be so flexible:
Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.
A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.
Do you want a job with those working conditions?
Me neither. And I doubt that even people in the U.S. who are desperately looking for work want a job that requires them to live in a dorm instead of with their families, not to mention 12-hour shifts. It may be flexible for the employer, but there’s nothing flexible about it for the workers.
And there are other problems in that work environment, as Frank Pasquale discusses on Balkinization.
What most people want is not just a job, but a life. They want to earn a decent living and have time to do other things — raise their kids, socialize with their friends, do volunteer work, take care of aging parents, pursue their non-work interests.
I doubt Chinese people are any different on this score. And having read some history of the conditions that gave rise to the U.S. labor movement in the early 20th Century, I’m willing to bet that sooner or later the Chinese workers are going to fight back.
This highly touted flexibility is based on treating workers like robots. And, perhaps, the companies are dreaming of a time when most all of the workers will be robots. No need for tea and biscuits then, or even dormitories. And they can probably work 24-hour shifts.
(Pause here to reflect on the science fiction that addresses this issue. I particularly recommend Tom Disch’s 334.)
If the only way manufacturing can be flexible is to treat workers as replaceable cogs in a machine instead of as human beings, flexibility isn’t something we should be looking for.
But I suspect it’s possible to develop systems that are both flexible and allow working people a reasonable life. To develop them, though, you have to start by thinking that the workers are an integral part of the system.
Michael Ventura had a nice essay awhile back on the importance of inspiration, investment, and labor in the modern work world. That’s a good place to start.
One thought I’ve had is revamping the concept of the contract worker. Today, that’s code for hiring people at low pay for no benefits and no guarantees. But it is reasonable to assume that many industries need more workers at some times and fewer at others. It’s also reasonable in this fast-paced world to assume that people will need to continuing educating themselves throughout their careers, perhaps changing the kind of work they do many times in their careers.
Retirement and health plans funded by employer and employee contributions but not tied to specific companies, along with unemployment benefits and training opportunities for those between work contracts, could make a system of flexible contract workers both viable for companies and sustainable for workers.
It’s also a system that works well for writers and artists and others of our ilk, who sometimes need day jobs but don’t necessarily want to commit to serious careers other than their writing. Freelancers would also like a system that gives them some shot at retirement and health benefits at a reasonable cost while working for themselves.
A flexible system that is based on inflexible treatment of human beings is a contradiction in terms. Surely we can do better.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.