Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Context Matters

Just a quick point made by Matthew Yglesias that I wanted to co-sign; context matters:
The big picture that emerges, I think, is simply of a China that's still exceptionally poor by American standards. (emphasis mine - JMG)
There has been a lot excellent (and not so excellent) of coverage over the working conditions at Foxconn's factories. I am not going to add commentary to the conditions themselves, but rather how we talk about working conditions in general.

Standards of living and working conditions are relative ideas. Just like the adjectives "hot" or "cold", "quality working conditions" or "low standards of living" implies there's some baseline for comparison; usually our own. This is not to say that there is ever an excuse for barbaric working conditions, or standards of living that traumatizes a basic regard for human beings. But we need to be aware of (and appreciate) the quality of life that middle-class American citizens enjoy is the result of decades, if not centuries, of progressive social movement and advocacy for those on society's lowest rungs (e.g. child labor laws, protected classes, minimum wages, etc).

There is a bit of hubris in the expectation that the rest of the globe, especially the parts that are in the process of developing, to conform to the standards of an industrialized, western, middle-class lifestyle without a deeper commitment to understanding the context of the Foxconn employee, or the Malaysian Clipsal worker, or the Moroccan OCP miner.

If you'd like to learn more about supplier standards that created your iPhone, Apple's CSR reports are available here.

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