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A contrarian view on the Apple China controversy

Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on June 19, 2006

Hurray for Perry Wu, who blogs at ChinaTechNews. Wu has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the report in the UK tabloid, the Mail on Sunday, about alleged iPod sweatshops in China. The Mail’s story isn’t available online but the report of deplorable labor conditions has prompted lots of controversy and even has led Apple to announce that it will launch an investigation. (Here’s a summary of the story.) There’s no doubt that companies like Apple that outsource their production to Taiwanese operating in China need to look closely at the treatment workers receive at these mainland plants. As this AP story that ran a few days ago on BusinessWeek put it, “allegations of poor working conditions are rife in China and workers often are housed in rudimentary dormitories, fed poorly and subjected to poor pay, unsafe working conditions and other maltreatment.”

But people rushing to denounce Apple and its Taiwanese suppliers as the latest corporate villains exploiting workers in Asia need to slow down. According to descriptions of the original story, the Mail on Sunday reported that workers live in dormitories housing 100 people and outsiders aren’t allowed inside. Is that scandalous? If a dozen or more women are forced to share one room, yes. But the story doesn’t seem to say anything about overcrowding. So if that’s not an issue, then we’re left with the fact that there’s heavy security and access is denied to people who don’t work at the plant. Sounds like just about any factory in a coastal Chinese province. Other countries, too. Writes Wu: “Visitors are not permitted into the factory? Since when were you able to tiptoe around the vats of beer at Anheuser-Busch’s brewery in Williamsburg, Virginia? Or when was the last time you showed up at Microsoft’s compound unannounced in Redmond and expected the royal treatment?”

Another thing worth pointing out: Most of these factories employ young women who have traveled to the coast from some poor parts of the interior. That sort of labor mobility is vital to China’s success in attracting billions of dollars worth of foreign investment, but it also creates a big risk in a country where the sex industry is widespread. According to this story from Radio Free Asia, the World Health Organization estimates that 6 million Chinese women work as prostitutes. Young women from poor provinces are especially vulnerable. Given the world of pimping and prostitution that’s just outside the factory gates, critics of Apple and its Taiwanese suppliers should consider that having tight security for the women making iPods is not such a bad thing.

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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