Let's Move the iPad Back to America

05/28/2010 11:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Gilbert B. Kaplan Former Deputy Assistant and Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce

Corporate citizens like Apple have a greater responsibility than just making money for their shareholders. They have a responsibility to the future of this country. Given the problems that are occurring at the Foxconn plant where they have been subcontracting iPad production, they should fulfill their responsibilities and move the production of the iPad back to the United States.

Let's first look at what's gone wrong at Foxconn, the sprawling subcontracting plant where iPads and other high tech products are made in Shenzhen, north of Hong Kong. Let's look at the most fundamental point first, at least as it relates to the United States. That is that the workers at Foxconn's plant are paid $130 a month. Assuming that they work four fifty hour weeks a month, this translates to a wage of 65 cents an hour. That is basically a slave labor wage, at least as compared to the wages in western markets where the iPad is sold. How can we continue to tolerate a trading system that not only allows this, but in fact encourages it? It is true that workers in China seem to want these jobs because the alternative is even worse, but even that conclusion has now been thrown into doubt. If it's such an ideal career path, why have ten workers thrown themselves off buildings at the Foxconn plant (nine died and the other suffered severe injuries), why have their been reports of security guards abusing workers, and why has the work been described as relentless, as "making people numb," as turning them into machines?

It is a scandal that this is where the high tech goods that people across America are enjoying are being made. And Apple does not need to make them there. The classic economic argument that the very low wages are economically necessary for a product like the iPad simply makes no sense at all. iSuppli, a well respected international economics firm, estimates that the cost of manufacturing including labor in the iPad, is about $10 in a product that retails for about $600, in other words less than 2% of the price. And the profit Apple makes on the iPad is over $300 an item. Even if this $10 manufacturing cost (which includes such other things as factory overhead and energy costs) were doubled or tripled or quadrupled by paying a U.S. worker a reasonable wage and helping restore the U.S. economy, Apple's profits would still be enormous.

About 100 years ago Henry Ford realized you cannot have a sustained industrial economy if the people who make goods don't have enough money to buy them. So he paid his workers enough money that over time they could buy his cars, buy their homes and move into the middle class. Apple, now the largest technology company in America, is trying to squeeze every penny it can out of the U.S. consumers, and give nothing back, not even a manufacturing job in Silicon Valley or somewhere else in the United States for people making the iPad. 65 cents an hour is a better wage from their point of view. I'm a lawyer and I like to make a good income. I guess I should try and figure out how to pay my employees 65 cents an hour too.

One of the saddest footnotes, to me, in the whole Foxconn suicide story came from a nonchalant comment made by one of the Foxconn employees who an AP reporter interviewed next to the company swimming pool. The pool was supposedly built for the workers. But the worker commented that the pool closes at 9 pm, and she gets off too late to ever use it. It was sad both because this is just part of the whole Foxconn picture, unending routine, depersonalization, and migrant workers coming to Shenzhen with no way out. But it was also sad because it appears that Foxconn has built a Potemkin village, a fake façade, to appeal to U. S. outsourcers and U. S. journalists, and until recently, we all bought it.