Union members are increasingly recognizing that, just as the 20th century labor victories were largely built by the efforts of new immigrants trying to gain access the American dream, the future of the middle class in the new century will be tied to the fate of those struggling at the bottom of the wage scale.
Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It can be found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.
Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and GEO, two prison privatizers, along with a third smaller operator, G4S (formerly Wackenhut), sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.
These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, whilegetting paidsomewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.
Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance — unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide. Indeed, a sentence of “confinement at hard labor” was then the essence of the American penal system. More than that, it was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy — at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.
From “Locking Down an American Workforce,” Le Monde Diplomatique
In the end, of course, Jobs would bow to shareholder demands and export the robots’ jobs to cheaper human laborers in China. But that is not part of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, which makes zero mentions of Foxconn, the million-employee contract manufacturer that ultimately enabled the great iResurrection of America’s favorite iBrand.
Foxconn is a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision, a Taiwanese contract manufacturer founded by a curious man named Terry Guo who does not seem particularly astute at self-branding. He apparently wears an ancient Yuan Dynasty bracelet in honor of his supposed “personal hero,” Genghis Khan, but his management maxims sound suspiciously Confucian. “I always tell employees: The group’s benefit is more important than your personal benefit,” he once said to the Wall Street Journal. It’s better to join the navy than be a pirate, in other words.
Or is it? Guo’s factories employ 90 percent of Apple’s workers in exchange for less than 5 percentof its profits, all so they can consume approximately 99 percent of Apple’s negative press. Guo doesn’t talk to journalists often, but angry employees leaked some comments he made in January at a company annual “family day” at the Taipei Zoo. Taking the stage next to the zoo’s director,he compared Foxconn to his surroundings. “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” he said.
“What kind of animal jumps off a building?” an indignant Internet commenter wanted to know.
From “The Book of Jobs" by Maureen Tkacik (Reuters, Feb. 22, 2012)