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Steve Jobs Sez: "Let Them Eat Dim Sum"

In the recent post "Apple Marketing's Top 10 Dumb Mistakes", I touted Apple CEO Steve Jobs as one of world's best pitchmen. Well, I'm eating my words today, because a good pitchman would never be so tone deaf that he'd throw gasoline on a potentially explosive PR disaster.

Turns out there's been a spate of 10 suicides at a Foxconn-owned facility that manufactures the iPhone. The suicides are apparently related to the combination of the working conditions and low wages. Workers at the plant are paid a starting salary of $130 a month and are expected to put in 12 hour days, 6 days a week.

The plant's management recently admitted that there was a problem by giving the workers a raise, but it apparently that's not managed to stem the tide.

Enter Steve Jobs. At a recent conference in California , he was asked about the controversy. His comment:

"You go in this place and it's a factory but, my gosh, they've got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it's pretty nice..."
What's wrong with this remark? Plenty:

First, it might be just a bit difficult to enjoy restaurants and movie theaters on your day off when you're completely exhausted from working a 72 hour work week.

Second, you'd think that somebody who runs a major corporation would know something about the history of labor, where company stores play a major role in the oppression of captive workers.

Third, the fact that Jobs (or some Jobs factotum) was treated to a visit to a "potemkin village" section of a factory does not mean that the rest of the factory is also "pretty nice."

Fourth, even if conditions were fabulous at Foxconn, it's almost inevitable that conditions are wretched a step or two up the supply chain. There are rivers in Taiwan so polluted by high tech manufacturing that people have lost consciousness simply from walking next to them. Get outside the main industrial areas on the mainland and you'll find much worse.

Fifth, and most importantly, when working conditions are "pretty nice," employees do not generally kill themselves in large numbers.

Here's the deal: Billionaires shouldn't comment on the working conditions of the people whose labor made them billionaires. Not if those workers are killing themselves because they can't take it any longer.

Apple famously positioned itself (in a memorable Superbowl ad) as the heroic attacker of the "big brother" thinking of the corporate PC. Now CEO Steve Jobs has become the master of 1984 newspeak, claiming that "freedom" means "freedom from porn."

I'd like to see Steve Jobs worrying less about pron and instead start showing some leadership in making high tech working conditions less oppressive.

I'd like to see Jobs, or somebody like him, take the lead in requiring an independent, on-site audit of very company that supplies parts and semiconductors to the high tech world, before those products can be sold in the U.S. or the E.U.

I don't know about you, but I'm sick of worrying that the products that I use may be inexpensive because some parts of them are being produced by slave labor somewhere up the supply chain.

Or how about Steve Jobs showing some leadership in pushing Congress to enact labor laws requiring overtime pay for salaried employees asked (or expected) to work more than 60 hours a week? It's not fair to make workers "more productive" by simply asking them to work longer hours for the same pay.

I can understand why "everyone else is doing it" makes sense in a competitive market, but that's why government regulation would work... by creating a level playing field where companies wouldn't have to work their employees literally to death in order to remain competitive.