As a baby boomer living most of my life in Africa I have observed at first hand, far too many examples of man’s inhumanity to man, been on the receiving end myself at times. On the positive side, I have had many good experiences that few in the Western world ever dream of. I have also been to many remote places that few white people have reached.
This background has given me a different outlook to many of my North American and European friends, readers and contacts. I am often asked for my opinion on various subjects concerning human actions, conditions and events in the developing world. Frequently my answers seem shocking to those that have lived their lives in the security, comfort and affluence of a Western society.
I in turn (as readers will be aware) continue to be shocked at the erosion of individual rights and personal freedom that I have witnessed in the 8 years I have lived in Canada. The steady removal of the requirement that we should all be responsible for our own actions and consequences from our inaction. The increasing heavy-handed actions by all levels of government irrespective of which party is in control, to treat us all like mindless zombies whose every action must be strictly controlled.
Questions of ethics, fair trade, aid to developing countries, come up quite frequently. Not surprisingly, having been on the receiving end of outsiders’ (both supposed friends and enemies) interference in sovereign nation’s affairs I have some strong views.
A fellow blogger Dr. Hadass Eviatar asked an ethical question in a post on her blog My Coat of Many Colours . Her dilemma was whether she should buy an iPhone given the reports of the terrible conditions for Chinese workers in the factories making the phones. Hop over to her blog at the link above and read her article, she writes very well, you will not be disappointed.
My reply to her question went like this:
I lived most of my life in Africa, I have seen poverty on a scale most North Americans cannot imagine. In many parts of Africa, people work long hours under atrocious conditions for $1 a day.
There are long queues of people outside businesses and factories waiting for more of those jobs.
If you are destitute, those jobs, even if they will shorten your life, are better than you or your kids starving.
Remember it was only a couple of hundred years ago that many of our ancestors worked under similar conditions in the coal mines and cotton mills of Europe. Our modern industrial society and better labour practices have evolved from that.
The best thing that we can do for the Chinese workers is to buy as many iPhones as possible. Some of the wealth will trickle down to improve the lowest levels of society. The more competition for labour, the better the conditions will be.
It might take a couple of generations, but evolution will take place. In the interim, bad as it is for those workers, it is still better than the alternative.
So go ahead and buy your phone with a clear conscience.
There are a couple of points that need more examination.
Poverty in Africa
One of the examples of people working extremely hard physically, for up to 12 hours a day and at the time in the late 1980′s, for less than $1 a day was labourers in Zaire (now DRC) offloading sugar and flour from rail trucks. Both products were packed in 25 kg (55lb) bags. Workers would have 2 bags placed on their heads and run down a wooden ramp from the rail truck across rail lines and a very rough gravel yard into a warehouse where they would have the bags removed by other workers for stacking. They would then run back for the next 2 bags. Some of those workers looked like they only weighed 140 lbs, so they were carrying around 80% of their own bodyweight, in temperatures of over 30 C (85F) in tropical humidity for up to 12 hours a day. No lunch break, no cold water. Conditions in many parts of Africa are no better today.
If a worker fainted from exhaustion, a replacement would be let into the yard from the long line of people waiting at the gate for a chance to earn a miserable wage.
A sight that is unforgettable, is that of men, women and children scouring the garbage dumps on the outskirts of big cities for anything edible no matter how dirty, contaminated or insect infested. A particularly bad example was seeing seriously malnourished refugees from Mozambique risking land mines to cross the border into Rhodesia so that they could sift through the kitchen rubbish thrown away at bush camps.
Early one morning, I was feeling sorry for myself because I had cut my foot quite badly and then burned myself trying to set some rubbish on fire with petrol (gasoline). I escorted the garbage patrol on its journey away from camp to the disposal pit and there were hordes of starving children, thin as rakes and barely dressed in tatty rags, overjoyed because they had found the rotting T bone steak remnants from one of our previous meals. Thanking us for not burning the scraps and bones, some of which were already green and fly infested in the heat. Seeing other humans living under worse conditions than my dogs at home did, soon stopped me feeling sorry for myself.
Factory workers in China although badly treated or exploited by our standards, are almost certainly better off than the peasants in the rural areas from where they originated and definitely better off than millions of staving people in the most desolate parts of the world.
While I would agree that we should support a boycott of conflict diamonds and emeralds, especially from the Marange field in Zimbabwe, where there is clear evidence that Mugabe’s army has stolen the land itself and then the diamonds coming out of it. In the process murdering who knows how many miners, this is a different scenario to iPhones made in Chinese factories.
Yes, we should be concerned about working and living conditions in countries that supply us with our shiny electronics at an affordable price. But we are being extremely arrogant when we try to impose our standards on foreign countries. Why is it that numerous studies find the level of happiness among people living under terrible conditions (by our standards) in poor countries, is considerably higher than in our stressed out Western societies?
If we insisted that those factories operated at the same standard as we would demand here in North America, no factory in China or anywhere else would be competitive and iPhones would be many times more expensive.
We are so sure that out way of life and our standards are better than those of other countries, but look at the mess we leave when we try to impose those standards on people who are not ready for them, cannot manage them and frequently do not want them. Iraq, Afghanistan and much of Africa are prime examples.
The best way we in the West can help factory workers making iPhones in Chinese factories is to keep on buying the phones. The more wealth that flows into those businesses, the more will trickle down through the layers of the economy. The more demand for output from those factories, the more competition for labour there will be until eventually wages and conditions will start to rise. That process might take generations but it should happen quicker than it did for our own European ancestors.
The alternatives, trying to dictate labour laws to China or boycotting products made there will only make the lives of those workers even more miserable.
So go ahead and buy your exploited Chinese worker produced electronic gadgets with a clear conscience, you might just be making more impact than donating the same amount to an administration heavy big name charity.
What do you think? Leave a comment and share your views.
Wishing you success in all your endeavours.
p.s. My e-book is now in the Kindle select lending library.
Achieving Goals: How to Use Marathon Runners Success Secrets For Business Goals
Image from Dreamstime