The new iDontwannaknowaboutit

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Apple impresario Steve Jobs will be speaking today at Apple's annual mega-event, the Worldwide Developer's Conference in San Francisco. In the run-up to Jobs' presentation the Apple rumor-mill is in its typical overdrive mode. Apple fanboys are hoping for a new iteration of both the iPhone and MacBook Air and maybe a few other surprises, perhaps even the new iWalkonwater. But I can make a pretty safe prediction about today's tech lineup. Jobs' "one more thing" this year will not be an iMresponsible when it comes to the apparently relentless conditions at China's Foxconn Technology plant where many of Apple's best-selling gadgets, including the iPhone, are manufactured.

Over the past year ten young men and women, employees at Foxconn, have committed suicide because of disciplinary measures they were experiencing or just on-the-job stress because of the pace and intensity of the line work. Nine of the deaths occurred at the massive plant in Shenzhen, China, a campus that houses more than 300,000 workers. One famously jumped out a window to his death after losing an iPhone prototype and a brutal interrogation by company security personnel. The Apple subcontractor's response initially was to install netting around the company's windows, thus neatly converting a laughably clichéd social justice teaching trope (why are all those babies floating downstream?) into painful self-parody. After the most recent suicide and unflattering press attention from around the world, Foxconn, joining other Chinese manufacturers, has opted to give its employees a substantial raise, though one suspects it's the dehumanizing work pace and treatment of the workers, rather than the size of their paychecks, that might be promoting such hopelessness and despair on the assembly line in this workers' paradise.

For decades now, U.S. manufacturers have drained jobs from relatively union friendly North America and sent them overseas to lower wage and lightly regulated climes. Since the mid-1990s the preferred landing site has been China, irresistible owing to its large and desperate population and accommodating Socialists. Such outsourcing has been a wonderfully facile profit maximization strategy for U.S. corporations, allowing them to lower production costs but, perhaps more important, distance themselves from unpleasant questions about working conditions, just wages, and the environmental impact of manufacturing, of particular concern to contemporary gadget makers because of the toxicity of some of their high-tech components.

To be fair to Apple, other U.S. and multinational manufacturers such as HP, Dell and Sony, likewise subcontract with Foxconn. Like other manufacturers working overseas, Apple and Dell have long maintained codes of conduct for their subcontractors, though the skeptical might tend to dismiss such lightly enforced agreements as mere product advertising. Both companies have launched internal reviews to discern if Foxconn is living up to the ethical standards they have presumably accepted. I think I could save them the money with a quick survey of the corporate suicide netting. At any rate, let's hope all interested parties are actually sincere about their paper commitments to work ethics. I'd like to be able to continue to use my iPhone without having to pay an additional fee to resolve my new, improved iGotaguiltyconscience.