Amid a roiling sea of doubt and uncertainty, we can continue clinging to one steadfast truth: The Internet is making everything more democratic. Not only does information want to be free; social media produces revolutions and political upheavals in authoritarian societies, and the rise of a new breed of self-empowered citizen journalists makes it all but inevitable that our institutions will be held accountable, and their deeds rendered transparent, on a scale no one dared to imagine before.
So, naturally, when a major human-rights group issued a shocking report that detailed extensive and punishing abuses of basic human rights in the Chinese factories churning out the democracy-spreading gadgets on the vanguard of our information revolution, the lead opinion-makers in the tech world would have to sit up and take notice–and demand a new age of workplace reform.
Yeeeah, not so much, actually. As Valleywag correspondent Sam Biddle notes, American tech writers greeted the report, completed by the watchdog group China Labor Watch, as a scoop, alright–but on the plans of Apple to release a cheaper version of its flagship product, the iPhone, into the affluent West’s novelty-starved market for faster and cheaper info-gizmos. The report documented widespread labor abuses at Pegatron, one of the leading subcontractors for Apple in China–including substandard wages and safety practices, the use of grievously underpaid interns, mandatory overtime without benefit of overtime payscales, the suspension of maternity leave for workers impregnated while they were employed by the firm, overtly discriminatory hiring practices, and scores of other violations of basic worker rights. In all, the report confirmed 86 violations of worker rights at Pegatron and two of its subsidiary firms working on major Apple contracts: Riteng, which builds Apple computers, and AVY, which assembles parts for the iPad.
As Biddle writes, this dismal record of practices almost completely eluded the online tech press, who chose instead to focus on the shiny new end products that these firms were lovingly crafting for legions of better-situated geeks in Western markets. “Cheaper iPhone with plastic back cover detailed during investigation into Apple supplier Pegatron” read one typical headline, at thenextweb.com. The accompanying photo did not show the shameful living and working conditions at the Pegatron facility (even though such photos were amply provided in the China Labor Watch report. No, instead, there was a stock photo of a privileged-looking hipster, talking eagerly into his pleasantly glowing iPhone and slightly hunched over under the weight of his backpack. “Plastic iPhone Lite Is Confirmed by Pegatron Labor Abuse Report,” cooed the aptly named cultofmac.com, alongside a lead image of brightly colored plastic iPhone cases. We have little to add to Biddle’s crisp summary of tech-reporting trends:
Publications were treating CLW as a source of gadget news, not the investigative body it is—and let the rumor of a new iPhone model lead each story, rather than the bleak reality of its production. Jessica Lessin, the conflicted Wall Street Journal reporter who’s struck out on her own, even seem irked that she’d been scooped by a human rights watchdog:
Evidence of low-cost iPhone leaking thru working condition report. Where I 1st mentioned polycarbonate shells in Jan. http://t.co/CNoBE3VHpy
— Jessica Lessin (@Jessicalessin) July 29, 2013
Small wonder that Apple–which has already endured one round of horrific reports on adverse labor practices at the notoriously suicide-prone facility of another lead Apple contractor, Foxconn–has increased its orders to Pegatron this year. No matter how many gruesome accounts emerge from the Information Age’s dark satanic mills in the East, members of the Western tech press can be counted on to look the other way–so long as there are shiny polycarbonate shells for them to fight over.