On January 21, 2012 The New York Times published an eye-opening story about how it isn't really practical for Apple to manufacture its gadgets in the United States ("How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work.")
The gist of the piece was that offshoring its manufacturing wasn't only about cheap labor (the conventional wisdom), but that it was more about intellectual capital and scale (and to a smaller extent, logistics). The central argument was that the U.S. simply didn't have enough engineers and skilled employees to build iPhones and iPads in the quantities that Apple required.
"What U.S. plant can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?"
At a dinner with Silicon Valley CEOs eight months before his death President Obama reportedly asked Steve Jobs "What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?”
Jobs is rumored to have replied that "those jobs are gone."
A current Apple executive put things even more bluntly, saying:
"We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries, We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible."
On January 25, 2012 The Times published a scathing follow-up to the pro-offshoring article that was much more critical of the practice, focusing on the human cost of manufacturing gadgets overseas ("In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.")
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records...
But it's not just Apple. According to the first NYT piece Foxconn Technology assembles roughly 40 percent of all consumer electronics, and counts among its clients: Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nintendo, Nokia, Samsung and Sony. There's a better-than-average chance that you're reading this on a machine assembled by Foxconn.
The second NYT article puts a human face on the quasi-anonymous machine that manufactures most of our gadgets "over there." It's an important read that adds much-needed context to human welfare issues that surround the growing tech industry -- and it ups the emotional and physical cost of the gadgets that we increasingly covet.
While not an excuse for poor working conditions or human rights violations it's important to remember that corporations are beholden to their shareholders and obligated to maximize profits. But at what cost?
Should Apple move its manufacturing onshore (back to the U.S.) if it means being less competitive?
Would you pay a premium for an iPad that was "Made in the U.S.A.?" (How much?)