Samsung, Chinese Workers, and Labour Rights
Samsung and Apple recently shared the spotlight as the parties to a billion dollar intellectual property lawsuit. Now, Samsung has replaced Apple as the tech company in a different spotlight — the spotlight, that is, consisting of accusations of mistreating Chinese workers. A report by the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch says that Chinese factories making devices and components for Samsung are guilty of a range of abuses. Employees working more than 100 hours of overtime in a month. Children under 16 working in factories. Failure to provide safety clothing where appropriate. And on and on.
A few key points are worth noting.
First, a note about overtime. It’s worth pointing out that China Labor Watch criticizes overtime — voluntary overtime — as if overtime were a bad thing. But at the Foxconn factories supplying Apple, at least, the biggest complaint of workers was that they wanted more overtime. If anything similar is the case at the Samsung factories, this implies that stricter limits on overtime would indeed be a bad thing, at least from the workers’ point of view.
Of course, wanting more overtime doesn’t prove that things are great at the factories; it just proves that workers want more money than they make during a regular workday. After all, if you pay people poorly enough, everyone will literally beg you for more overtime.
But then, it’s also worth remembering that “overtime” is a social construct. The amount of hours someone should work in a week is a matter of convention, and in North America and Europe we established the conventional 35 or 40 hour work week once we could afford to do so. Not everyone is yet so lucky.
Second, it is a mistake to lump all the accusations in together, as if they were all of a kind. They aren’t. Some of the complaints have to do with things that are susceptible to tradeoffs. Long hours, for example, may be acceptable if workers believe the loss of leisure time is justified by the extra income. It’s arguably a matter of rational calculations for each worker.
Other complaints, in comparison, have to do with rights, and rights are traditionally regarded as not being readily subjected to such calculations. We don’t allow voters in a democracy to literally sell their votes, for example. We put such a high value on the right to democratic participation that we forbid voters from making tradeoffs of this kind, from weighing how much they value their ability to vote against how much they value some quantity of money. Now, back to Samsung. One of the issues raised by China Labor Watch is that workers in the factories lacked a mechanism by which to lodge complaints. The existence of such a mechanism in the workplace might arguably be said to be a right. Such being the case, Samsung cannot simply argue that its workers are making a rational tradeoff here. Rights, as the saying goes, are trumps.
Finally, a note about accountability. As law professor Stan Abrams points out, one of the key factors differentiating the Apple and Samsung cases is that Samsung owns or controls many of the factories in question. Apple, on the other hand, was (and is) criticized for conditions at factories owned by its subcontractor. But since it didn’t run those factories it could plausibly deny knowledge and perhaps responsibility. Samsung, on the other hand, has no such refuge. When you own or control a factory, you can’t plausible, ethically, deny that you know how workers are being treated.
That’s not to say that the Apple and Samsung cases are categorically different. In both cases, the companies in question need to take a hard look at how their products are being made. But consumers and investors need to take a hard look, too. And that means not just casting a spotlight, but doing the hard mental work of thinking through some complicated questions of right and wrong.