Pogue on Foxconn: hey, at least it's not rice farming or prostitution!

A job seeker yawns as he queues outside Foxconn recruitment center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Tan

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue sure has an interesting take on the Foxconn/worker's rights debacle.

One point I agree with: it's a mistake to focus solely on Apple. Many, many Western technology companies work with Foxconn, and with factories where conditions are worse. From the January 25 NYT piece on Foxconn:

Foxconn Technology [is] China's largest exporter and one of the nation's biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers. The company has plants throughout China, and assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world's consumer electronics, including for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung.

Let that sink in. Foxconn outputs nearly half of all the world's consumer electronics.

Few tech companies have taken the kinds of early steps Apple has to try and improve matters, and share information about the process.

And while Pogue doesn't explicitly address this point, I'll throw it out there: cheap overseas labor in rotten conditions with poor labor law standards are part of what keeps gadget prices where they are. If we mean what we say about wanting better lives for the men and women who make our consumer electronics, are we willing to change consumer culture, and pay more? I'm not optimistic.

What do you think? And is there *any* reality-based model that could lead to some of those manufacturing jobs coming back to the US (or, name your labor-friendly nation here) in our lifetimes? Again, I'm not optimistic.

Edit: Here's an Economist item about the Pogue column, and reactions focused in the study of global economics. Economics consultant Adam Ozimek has a thoughtful reaction to the Pogue column here, focusing on labor laws, and what factors motivate change. And Mike Daisey has quite a rant here. He's the author and monologist behind "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." I'll post other interesting pieces here, pro or con, as they bubble up.

Update: Responding to a portion of this post, Pogue points me to "The Dilemma of Cheap Electronics," another recent column in which he addressed the "why our gadgets are cheap" issue relative to labor costs and standards. Snip:

That Chinese workers are paid less than American workers is no big shock. We've known that forever. That's why everybody outsources to China in the first place. There's a long list of Chinese manufacturing costs that are lower than American manufacturing costs: hourly employee rates, worker benefits, taxes, the cost of power, buildings and equipment, and more.

Bringing workplace standards and pay in Chinese factories up to American levels would, of course, raise the price of our electronics. How much is hard to say, but a financial analyst for an outsourcing company figures a $200 iPhone might cost $350 if it were built here.

Do we care enough about Chinese factory conditions to pay nearly twice as much for our phones, tablets, cameras, TVs, computers, GPS units, camcorders, music players, DVD players, DVRs, networking gear and stereo equipment?

Not everybody will say yes.

But suppose they did. How would we get there? Which electronics brand would jump first?

Related viewing: This ABC Nightline episode, inside Foxconn.