A Labour of Luxury – Manufacturing in the 21st Century

While Samsung and Apple fight for patents about who’s got round or square corners, a slide to unlock and other mundane and generally indiscernible features, workers at a major manufacturing plant are rioting and striking in the thousands for fair wages.

Of course manufacturers bid for contracts and the lower they go, the higher the chance of clinching it. That means design and engineering companies like Apple and their manufacturing contractors like Foxconn have a symbiotic relationships. One benefits from the other and this trickles down to us consumers in the form of savings right?

Not entirely.

See large telecom companies are still subsidizing these phones, hooking you with lower then manufacturer’s retail prices by taking a small loss on the hardware and taking a huge profit on service fees for the duration of your contract. Upwards of 10 billion in annual profit looks to be quite normal for the big wireless telecom providers. (http://www.vancouversun.com/business/all/Telus+wireless+segment+helps+boost+revenue+billion+profit/7038865/story.html)

So while giant’s battle in the courtroom over billions of dollars, the people at the bottom, toiling away to meet demand are being paid fractions of these gigantic profits (http://www.bgr.com/2012/05/03/apple-cell-phone-profits/) with company and factory owners and mid management taking the lion’s share of the wealth generated for their use personal gain and leaving thousands to squabble amongst each other to get out like the crabs in the bucket they have become. Foxconn’s parent company makes about 3 billion in profit annually but Apple makes closer to 30 Billion annually. (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/07/12/fortune_500_foxconn_apple_profits/)

Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate what’s important.

Many of us if not all have smartphones now. This entwines our lives with technology on an intimate level. I say intimate because many of these devices come everywhere with us. For many of us they are moving from a luxury to a necessity. We seem to be using them and enjoying them and even creating a new thriving industry of app development making people wealthy 99 cents at a time.

There are a few argument’s, some intuitive, some economic for fair wages. Many of them discount the complexity and challenge associated with high technology devices. After all as design elevates many of these new devices are becoming more sophisticated and challenging to manufacture, requiring more skill and trained labour to develop.

Because of all the complexity and commerce associated with our technology perhaps manufactures should begin to place more emphasis on fair wages. What I mean by this is the ability for privileged societies on earth to raise their standards of ethics associated with the delivery of high tech products which are becoming more important in today’s modern society.

I realize this crosses into much contested ideological territory of what fair wages are and the cultural relativity associated with them. I’m going to make blanket statements here but I believe that wealth if even slightly more evenly spread out would have the effect of creating much less disparity in the world and therefore less tension, crime and unhappiness that lead to all sorts of nasty self-perpetuating problems.

I think we are caught in a hard place right now economically – although it makes sense to outsource labour and disperse a portion of wealth to ailing countries, in the long run we know this hurts local economy’s by reducing spending power of its citizens and contributing to inefficiencies due to shipping and transportation logistics which inflate costs and further deplete and toxify the environment.

Personally, I would like to see a new era of responsible employment become the norm. What I mean by this is paying wages which allow workers to move to higher positions after learning their positions.

With a higher level of society has to come tweaks and leaps in the way we do things. As we work smarter, a major reorganization will transpire out of necessity. I believe we are seeing this now as companies stockpile enormous profits and hesitate to invest while lower end labour workers are either out of work or are working treadmill wages.

In today’s interconnected society, doing the right thing leads to profit and further survival. Paying fair wages may reduce the company’s overall amount of hires, or their profits in the short run, but in the long run people who care about these issues (generally anyone who hears about them) will be more inclined to purchase from companies who treat their workers fairly.

Looking forward, perhaps training robots will replace more tedious jobs and save companies even more money. However there will still be a need for humans to supervise and service them. New robots like Baxter from Rethink Robotics is the first step towards a major industry reorganization. See video – (http://youtu.be/rjPFqkFyrOY ).

These robots have the potential to take the monotony out of jobs and elevate people sense of self-worth. I realize robots may still displace some workers initially however a major shift to local product manufacturing could also bring with it the ancillary jobs included in the full lifecycle of the products, from raw resource harvesting to disposal and recycling creating many more jobs with a level of diversity unseen presently.

If we can’t pay people fair wages on the other side of the world, can we get away with it in our own backyard?

Probably not.

But think, if we paid people wages that kept them happy and moving forward in life on the other side of the world, what would stop us from bringing manufacturing back home and doing the same thing here?

Perhaps that’s the ultimate answer and North America could certainly use the jobs.