The Ethical Boundaries; and Food for Thought.

As reported by Kotaku, Record China has been reporting on another situation at Foxconn in their treatment of workers who demanded a payrise, stating that they accepted their wages or tool compensated dismissal. Many chose the latter, but when that offer was rescinded, they climbed onto the roof and threatened a mass-suicide.

This isn’t the first incident at Foxconn’s plant in China; it has been reported before that to lower the casualty rate from suicide, they attached nets to the outside of their building.

This has obviously, among many gamers, raised the issue of the ethical sourcing of parts for their machines. Foxconn are not small-time, they provide parts and services for a number of companies including but not limited to Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. They are a major manufacturer of parts for the technologically-minded companies of Japan, China and America among other nations as well. They do this because they are cheap.

The reason manufacturing of these parts moved to regions like China, India and Pakistan are because the relative labour costs involved are much lower – due to the value of the currencies involved, the number of people seeking employment to support themselves and their families and the political and social minefields these countries have or lack, the payment required to keep them fed and housed in basic accommodation is a fraction of the cost of employment in America, Britain, Australia, Japan and most of the civilised world.

Many are crying out for a boycott of companies who are associated with Foxconn in any way – but that would hurt them, not Foxconn, a big multi-national company that clearly gets away with the lower wages and longer hours because there is less emphasis on the rights for its workers; they only need to perform the most basic of procedures and even then, in countries where legal aid is non-existent and human rights are often covered in a minefield of bureaucracy and red tape, these things can be overlooked as long as they are meeting the bottom line and achieving basic sales targets and wage figures.

So, if boycotts won’t work, what hope is there for the industry to take charge and find a more ethical way, and develop a moral compass that befits the political awakenings of many in the West?

I’d suggest the main thing to do is not to rely on Foxconn to change – rather, those who deal with them need to support radical new schemes and create new charity drives in order to make employment in these situations more tolerable, even if wages can’t or won’t change.

Much like the food industry in recent years. In the UK, the sale of Locally Sourced Organics, Freedom Foods and FairTrade products has risen by a few hundred percent. Despite the fact that these products are often 10% to 25% more expensive than the mass-produced, less ethical alternatives, people are willing to pay the extra in the knowledge their money is kept local, or that their food and meat is held to higher welfare standards, or that those in less-developed countries farming produce are given a fair share of the profits of the goods and services provided.

In the same vein, the technology world could also use a new scheme, with a logo and a long-term ethical goal, to help alleviate and support workers. By supporting a new charity scheme, with a logo to proudly display on the box, the extra cost of a product – let us say 10% here – could go towards improving the housing of these workers, building new properties that are safer, warmer and a place where people feel they can retreat at the end of a long day. The extra money could go into education for the children of these workers; so they have a chance at changing their lot in the world. And of course, a longer term aim could be if all companies signed up to such a scheme, that political and social pressures from the Western world are exerted upon the likes of Foxconn to improve their factories, offer more sane working hours, better healthcare options to keep productivity going and instill a greater sense of pride in the workforce, knowing that people care and that the extra being paid is channeled directly back into supporting them, their needs and their long-term security.

The benefits of this would be that these companies would be able to charge a premium; as I said, 10% or even 15% more, in exchange. It is a good public relations exercise for all involved; gives the companies something to shout about, the industry something to take pride in and the workers a very real sense of pride in what they do as well, in the knowledge that this is benefiting them long-term. And it gives us, the consumer, some sense of pride; knowing that paying that little extra is directly helping to support the people who made the innermost parts of the goods we so often take for granted, knowing that a little extra makes us feel better because we’ve taken the time and made the choice to buy an ethically-sourced product.

But, for all of what I’ve said, this is not something that can happen overnight; it will take several years before such things gain the momentum required for change on a larger scale; but as consumers, it is within our power to turn around to Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple et al and say yes, we ARE happy to pay a little extra for our luxury goods and essential electronics – if we can be assured that the extra cost is benefiting the workers who make these goods possible. An ethical drive is needed so that we can exert pressure upon these manufacturers to remind them that we do not condone the practices used by Foxconn and their ilk, and that we simply demand better in this day and age, capitalism or not.

Foxconn and similar companies like them in that neck of the woods cannot be crushed by simply boycotting them, as many are as bad as each other, and with increased demand comes lower standards as production is raised to compensate for said increase in demand. There aren’t many – if any – ethical alternatives on offer, and even if there were, to remove an industry from that part of the world would be to put many hundreds of thousands of people out of work, with no real long-term employment opportunities available to them. This means that we cannot simply bulldoze them our of existence; they’re kind of there, an unsightly and unfortunately necessary result of our need, want and desire for the latest consumer electrical goods.

No, the consumers of this industry are crying out for a sustainable scheme that puts the ethical well-being of the people as its forefront; a charitable moral force that can be the catalyst for change, and help everyone on every side sleep more soundly at night, knowing that however slow and however challenging, the wheels are in motion to improve and better those tied up in these low-paid jobs earning a dollar a day.

And the industry needs to jump on such a bandwagon with the same force and verve that they jump on any technological advancement.

Change is necessary – but it won’t be a short-term fix. Rather, a long-term aim is needed, and the rewards for all involved could be pretty impressive if they took the time to think about it.

If you think this is a good idea; write to Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo. Make petitions. Lobby your local government. This is something we can kick-start, this is something we can make happen if we want to.

And we do want to, right?

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