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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 5/31/21

Chris Hedges: "Dying for an iPhone"

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From Scheerpost

The suffering of the working class, within and outside the United States, is ignored by our corporatized media, and yet, it is one of the most important human rights issues of our era.


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Global capitalists have turned back the clock to the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The working class is increasingly bereft of rights, blocked from forming unions, paid starvation wages, subject to wage theft, under constant surveillance, fired for minor infractions, exposed to dangerous carcinogens, forced to work overtime, given punishing quotas and abandoned when they are sick and old. Workers have become, here and abroad, disposable cogs to corporate oligarchs, who wallow in obscene personal wealth that dwarfs the worst excesses of the Robber Barons.

In fashionable liberal circles there are, as Noam Chomsky notes, worthy and unworthy victims. Nancy Pelosi has called on global leaders not to attend the Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Beijing in February, because of what she called a "genocide" being carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur minority. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof in a column rattled off a list of human rights violations overseen by China's leader Xi Jinping, writing "[Xi] eviscerates Hong Kong freedoms, jails lawyers and journalists, seizes Canadian hostages, threatens Taiwan and, most horrifying, presides over crimes against humanity in the far western region of Xinjiang that is home to several Muslim minorities."

Not a word about the millions of workers in China who are treated little better than serfs. They live separated from their families, including their children, and housed in overcrowded company dormitories, which sees rent deducted from their paychecks, next to factories that have round-the-clock production, often making products for U.S. corporations. Workers are abused, underpaid and sickened from exposure to chemicals and toxins such as aluminum dust.

The suffering of the working class, within and outside the United States, is as ignored by our corporatized media as the suffering of the Palestinians. And yet, I would argue, it is one of the most important human rights issues of our era, since once workers are empowered, they can fend off other human rights violations. Unless workers can organize, here and in countries such as China, and achieve basic rights and living wages, it will cement into place a global serfdom that will leave workers trapped in the appalling conditions described by Friedrich Engels in his 1845 book "The Conditions of the Working Class in England" or Émile Zola's 1885 masterpiece "Germinal."

As long as China can pay slave wages it will be impossible to raise wages anywhere else. Any trade agreement has to include the right of workers to organize, otherwise all the promises by Joe Biden to rebuild the American middle class is a lie. Between 2001-2011, 2.7 million jobs were lost to China with 2.1 million in manufacturing. None are coming back if workers in China and other countries that allow corporations to exploit labor and skirt basic environmental and labor regulations are locked in corporate servitude. And while we can chastise China for its labor policies, the United States has crushed its own union movement, allowed its corporations to move manufacturing overseas to profit from the Chinese manufacturing models, suppressed wages, passed anti-labor right-to-work laws, and demolished regulations that once protected workers. The war on workers is not a Chinese phenomenon. It is a global one. And U.S. corporations are complicit. Apple has 46 percent of its suppliers in China. Walmart has 80 percent of its suppliers in China. Amazon has 63 percent of its suppliers in China.

The largest U.S. corporations are full partners in the exploitation of Chinese labor, and the abandonment and impoverishment of the American working class. U.S. corporations and Chinese manufacturers kept millions of Chinese workers crammed into factories at the height of a global pandemic. Their health was of no concern. Apple's profits more than doubled to $23.6 billion in the most recent quarter. Its revenues rose by 54 percent to $89.6 billion, which meant Apple sold more than $1 billion on average each day. Until these corporations are held accountable, which the Biden administration will not do, nothing will change for workers here or in China. Economic justice is global or it does not exist.

Workers in Chinese industrial centers -- self-contained company cities with up to a half million people -- drive the huge profits of two of the world's most powerful companies, Foxconn, the world's largest provider of electronics manufacturing services, and Apple, with $ 2 trillion dollars in market value. Foxconn's largest customer is Apple, but it also produces products for Alphabet (formerly Google), Amazon, which owns more than 400 private-label brands, BlackBerry, Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, GE, HP, IBM, Intel, LG, Microsoft, Nintendo, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba, as well as leading Chinese firms including Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, and Xiaomi. Foxconn assembles iPhones, iPads, iPods, Macs, TVs, Xboxes, PlayStations, Wii U's, Kindles, printers, as well as numerous digital devices.

Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, and Pun Ngai spent a decade conducting undercover research at Foxconn's major manufacturing sites in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai, Kunshan, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Tianjin, Langfang, Taiyuan, and Wuhan for their book "Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and The Lives of China's Workers." What they describe is an Orwellian dystopia, one where global corporations have perfected the techniques for a disempowered work force. These vast worker cities are little more than labor penal colonies. Yes, it is possible to leave, but to incur the ire of the bosses, especially by speaking out or attempting to organize, is to be blacklisted for life throughout China's archipelago of industrial centers and cast to the margins of society or often prison.

Workers live under constant surveillance. They are policed by company security units. They sleep in segregated male and female dormitories with eight or more people to a room. The multi-story dormitories have bars on the windows and nets below, put up to halt the spate of worker suicides that afflicted these factory cities a few years ago.

"The workplace and living space are compressed to facilitate high-speed, round-the-clock production," the authors write. "The dormitory warehouses a massive migrant labor force without the care and love of family. Whether single or married, the worker is assigned a bunk space for one person. The 'private space' consists simply of one's own bed behind a self-made curtain with little common living space."

Workers, who earn about $2 an hour and an average of $390 a month, are paid in wage debit cards, an updated version of company scrip. The bank card allows a worker to deposit, withdraw, and transfer money from 24-hour ATM machines that are accessible at Foxconn facilities.

Managers, foremen, and line leaders prohibit conversation on the assembly floor that operates on a 24-hour cycle of 10- or 12-hour shifts. Workers are reprimanded if they work "too slowly" on the line. They are punished for turning out defective products. Workers are often forced to remain behind after a shift if a worker committed an infraction. The worker who violated the rules is required to stand before his or her co-workers and read a statement of self-criticism. Any worker issued a "D" grade in their review for "unsatisfactory performance" is fired. The workers receive one day off every second week, or two rest days a month. They can be summarily shifted between the night and day shifts.

The authors describe the daily routine of a worker entering a Foxconn factory at 7 a.m. with hundreds of thousands of other Foxconn employees. Each person, prohibited from entering the factory complex with electronic devices, is checked by facial recognition systems to confirm his or her identity.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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