Jobs, Chinese and Otherwise

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." --Dante Alighieri, Inferno

I'm eating semi-sweet chocolate mini chips right out of the bag. Bought at my American-owned neighborhood market. Manufactured by Ghirardelli Chocolate, San Leandro, California in the good ol' USA. Thanks, Ghirardelli. The cacao bean essence of your chips melts in my mouth. I stop, do a little online checking, and discover two things: First, Ghirardelli Chocolate--home of San Francisco's tourist-packed Ghirardelli Square--is no longer an American company. It was bought in 1998 by Lindt and Sprungli, a Swiss company. Second, chocolate is made from cacao beans, typically imported from many places on the globe, none of them in the USA. This would be fine. Not indigenous to this country? Pass the Guittard's. American company. Sells chocolate in grocery stores everywhere. Whew.

Problem is, cacao beans are indigenous to this country, grown and harvested in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, sold by a company called Original Hawaiian Chocolate, "Made and Grown on the Island of Hawaii." Take that, wannabe-Hawaiian Trader Joe's. Wait, did I just eliminate chocolate and coffee from my life unless they come from Kona? Did I say this wasn't complicated?

Still, maybe if I discuss chocolate you'll forget about the Dante reference at the top of the post. And maybe then I won't have to discuss where my Dell laptop and battery, Apple iPhone and iPod and our family's Sony flat screen TV were made. (Here the writer reaches into the golden colored bag for another handful of Swiss chocolate chips.) Maybe you already know--as my son Matt did--about Foxconn. Matt arrives to play golf with Don. Here's our exchange:

Me: Have you heard of a factory called Foxconn?

Him: Oh yeah. Where Chinese workers are so miserable they're offing themselves? That's a horrible place.

Why does everyone know about this stuff except me? I'd also gotten a heads-up from my nephew Anthony, a college senior: "Funny you should mention Apple. They found a clever way to appease the [labeling] code…'Designed by Apple in Cupertino.' They're so proud of this it's all over their product packaging. The other statement of origin--'Manufactured by Chinese Labor Camps'--never caught on for some reason."

If you don’t have chocolate handy--and frankly I don't care who manufactured it--you might want to get some. It'll help. Apparently an estimated 900,000 Chinese workers (most young, aged 18 to 25), toil away 10 hours a day, six days a week for manufacturing giant Foxconn International Holdings, Ltd. Using military-style training tactics, Foxconn turns ordinary human beings into android-like workers. "I think that we are even faster than machines," said one Foxconn worker. They do not sit, they do not speak. They work forced overtime without extra pay for fear of losing their jobs. No wonder 13 workers, between January and August 2010, committed suicide. Each jumped out of a window. No fire in the building, smoke or threatened suffocation, as happened to our American Twin Towers workers on 9/11. This was--is--terror of a different sort though, isn't it? More chocolate chips, please. If a Chinese worker falls to the pavement and no one is there to hear her, does she make a sound? If I had never heard about the Foxconn abuses, would they cease to exist? Don't I wish.

According to Julia Gooding, a rep at New York-based not-for-profit China Labor Watch, "It is very likely your Dell battery was made in one of the Foxconn factories." I winced. What about my college daughter's Mac notebook? And my iPhone and iPod? Were they made at a Foxconn facility? "Oh, for sure. Apple's one of their biggest customers. And their company is the hardest to get to."

So what do I do? Picket an Apple store? Demand an answer from a black-t-shirted sales person at the Genius Bar? "I want to talk to Steve Jobs, now!" Suburban woman goes berserk. Film at 11.

How do I, how do any of us unhook from our ill-gotten electronic drugs? I have no answers. My internal moral compass, set by my Dad, spins, confused. Walking up the hill near my house to blow off steam, Pandora feeding Beach Boys to me via my iPhone, I can't get those Chinese kids out of my mind. I'd spent some time on the Hong-Kong based SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior) website. SACOM reported that after the suicides, in response to bad publicity as the news leaked out, Foxconn "invited monks to exorcise the evil spirit haunting the company." Um. Nice.

In a culture of "absolute obedience" the workers were "asked" to sign a pledge "promising not to commit suicide," including a clause saying "their parents would not seek extra compensation" just in case the worker/offspring broke their pledge and went ahead and killed themselves anyway. You know how kids are. They can get crazy.

Walking the hills, listening to "Surfin' USA" makes me feel, despite Foxconn, happy. Fog from the Bay creeps over the ridge, throwing a transparent veil over trees and brush, plants whose names I should know but don't. It's still a neighborhood, where I walk, with houses and such, but the ridge, dense with dark green growth, sits not too far off in the distance. As I head for home, a guy pulls up in a brand new shiny white Ford pickup. Ford Guy, 60-ish, rolls down his window, lets in some air. He's making notes of some kind. I pull out my ear buds, approach his car. "Say, I see you bought a Ford. How do you like it?" He glances up at me. "What? oh, it's great. Yeah, I used to buy toyotas--have a lot of them for my pool business--but this time, I said No." He has an accent. Sounds a bit like my German neighbor. He reads my thought. "I'm from Austria. This country's been good to me, you know? It's time to give back. Cost me a bit more, but I don't care."

We chat for a bit and I walk-run down the hills toward home. Kids in China jumping out of windows. How in the heck can I buy another Made in China electronic device? And how to complain to someone, anyone, about it. "Ya gotta go straight to the top," my Dad used to tell us kids when we were adults, if we were having a problem with a car or appliance. "Don't waste your time on phone calls to the little guy. Write a letter to the head of the company."

I arrive home, find the half-eaten bag of chocolate chips, right next to my Dell / Foxconn laptop. Light's no longer blinking orange since Matt installed the new battery for me. I want to thank the nameless 900,000 workers, but wouldn't know where to begin. Maybe with a letter to Steve Jobs.