None of the eulogies for Steve Jobs are likely to have much to say about the people who made his fortune writes Liam Mac Uaid. Apple has pioneered an aggressive anti-union strategy both in the Chinese factories that manufacture its gadgets and the Apple stores that sell them. The company’s story is more one of hyper-exploitation than affable geekery.
An article in the Financial Times (FT) lifted the lid on just how Steve Jobs’ “readiness to humiliate and embarrass others” keeps Silicon Valley psychologists busy restoring the mental health of his former employees; how he has created a company which drives hyper-exploited workers in Chinese factories to suicide and grinds profits out of the university graduates who work in his shops “counting their blessings to have a job”.
Just because Jobs and his company make the cutting edge technological status symbols of the 21st century there is no reason they can’t resemble the mill owners of 19th century Manchester.
Reports of conditions in the factories belonging to the companies which actually make the hardware seem like a throwback to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The Daily Telegraph reported “hundreds of people work in the workshops but they are not allowed to talk to each other. If you talk, you get a black mark in your record and you get shouted at by your manager. You can also be fined.”
For a typical 70 hours’ working week assembly line staff earn 900 yuan (£90) a month. Anyone needing to go to the toilet has to raise their hand until their post can be covered and two ten minute breaks and a one hour lunch are all the time you get off the production line. At the end of the working day staff sleep in dormitories with six or seven other people and eat in company restaurants.
Jobs’ personal wealth is estimated to be $8.3bn and his company has assets of $76bn cash. The FT is clear about how this has been achieved – “No inventory and no unions have been vital to forcing down Apple’s costs”. It is also able to use its massive bank balance to monopolise production of key components such as flash memory.
Apple is the consummate neo-liberal company. It has a thin stratum of very highly paid top managers and designers. Underneath this are about 46 000 employees in relatively low paid retail and marketing jobs. Below them are untold thousands of Chinese factory workers who live highly regimented lives under fierce discipline. Underneath them are the African men, women and children who mine metals like coltan needed for the circuitry.
When you know all that suddenly the iPhone and iPad lose something of their sci-fi lustre.
On the other hand the political conclusions shine out. Unions in the retail sector should be trying to recruit workers in the shops and marketing divisions. We should be giving what support we can to Chinese workers fighting for elementary rights and we should support African miners fighting hyper exploitation. A 90% levy on Apple’s obscene profit levels and Jobs’ bank account should easily cover the costs of giving everyone who works directly or indirectly for the firm a decent standard of living.