This report by Business Week has been in my reading list for quite a while though I never got round to reading it till today. Maybe I procrastinated because I just knew that I’d be troubled by the contents?
The sad truth is that every human advancement is borne by the labour of those less fortunate. Look at the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the endless railroad networks that crisscross America, most of the work was done by slaves or prisoners. Otherwise the cost would have been astronomical.
Singapore is no different as most of our labour force comprises foreigners from places like India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China (there are more). Most households also employ maids from the Philippines and Indonesia to do most of the work of maintaining a home (the cooking, the cleaning, etc). Majority of these workers travel to Singapore for work by taking out exorbitant loans from agents who help ‘secure’ them the job but insist on commissions that could be the equivalent of a years wages which leave the person stuck in a cycle if poverty as they take out more and more loans.
It’s easy to just go and buy (and discard!) gadget after gadget, year after year without much thought for how it got there in the first place. On the other hand it’s hard to force oneself to realise that for that piece of technology to come together in the first place thousands of tiny bits fabricated in separate factories around the world have to be assembled and tested by people just like you and me under incredibly harsh conditions just so that we can get these devices affordably and as and when we want them.
I love technology and admire its ability to bring convenience and improvement to our lives. But not at the cost of another’s future. Perhaps it’s time for me to get out of this relentless upgrade cycle for newer and newer gadgets and just appreciate the things that I do have. All told I own numerous Apple gadgets and whilst the report I’ve linked to does show Apple to be trying hard to improve the conditions for their workers it’s no comfort to me that thousands are still being exploited as part of the vast supply chain.
Big companies like Apple might have the clout to demand better for their workers and indeed more should stand up in similar ways. How about Nike or Samsung? I bet there are other numerous cases worldwide that have barely begun to see the light.
And lastly we consumers need to reset our expectations. Perhaps by being willing to pay more for a product because we know that a particular company treats their labour force fairly. Or by refusing to purchase products from one where we know this isn’t the case. We vote with our dollars and if it makes financial sense for a corporation to make fundamental changes to their hiring they will.
Ultimately this is a sad revelation of the human condition. That people are ok with (or at least claim ignorance that) others just like them are being exploited just so that their lives can be better. It’s a sense of entitlement that I’ve been feeling more and more uncomfortable with in recent years. The lowdown is this: do I continue living my life the same way knowing that this is not a one off thing? Or do I resolve to make a change?
Now that’s a bitter pill to swallow.