Letter 1 – What my iPhone costs

photo of a rainbow cresting over a dilapidated billboardThe globalized consumer of the 21st century is perhaps the hallmark of our times—a reality that truly sets us apart. The average Joe trots around wearing shoes made in Vietnam, using a phone made in China, driving a car assembled in Germany (running on oil from Saudi Arabia), all while eating fruit from Mexico and drinking tea from India. While this consumer may take pride in the fact that he serves as the focal point of an unprecedented system of global cooperation that makes Pax Orbis look like a very achievable goal, to me it seemed too good to be true. Globalization has long been credited as a force that brings the world together. However, not only an oversimplification of geopolitical processes, but also quite honestly a misleading argument offered to hide and disguise the dark side of globalization.

I came upon this realization when I looked at my phone. I spend hours on that thing every single day, and yet have absolutely no idea how it’s made, how it works, or who makes it. The processing power of the latest iPhone is at least 100,000 times that of the computer that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon. It is a marvel how the economic systems of our time can mass produce this complex piece of technology and put it in everyone’s pockets. Intrigued by this, I looked into how these systems do what they do, and sure enough I found the catch. Today, if you own an iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or Xbox, chances are that your device was made in a Foxconn factory in China, by a worker who is made to work 15-16 hours a day with no overtime pay, given no sick leaves, lives inside the factory premises in a cramped room, and is allowed to leave the factory only once a week. Foxconn has seen a spate of worker suicides in the last ten years and have admitted to hiring 14 year olds. That is the human cost of an iPhone. This is the moment I realized that what we call ‘Globalization’ is nothing more than a marketing gimmick used by Western Capitalists to positively brand this form of global capitalism that thrives on exploitation in the developing world. A globalized world is a detached world. It runs on a system that dehumanizes people and treats them as nothing more than cogs in a machine. And at the heart of this system lies the consumer. A consumer who cannot possibly fathom the life of the Bangladeshi worker who made his leather jacket. And it is this consumer that I wish to study.

So, is the consumer of the iPhone to blame for these exploitative practices? Can one claim that they live an ethical life if they unknowingly perpetuate these systems of injustice? If not, what would the alternative be? Most of these jobs in the developing world pay far better than any other work and contribute to the growth of their economies. Boycotting these products would simply make matters worse for them. In my project, I seek to find out what the ethical path in this dilemma entails, and how an ordinary consumer can discern right from wrong in a system that was imposed onto him without full disclosure. I will study the ethics of the migrant labor market of my hometown of New Delhi where millions of migrant workers flock from their native villages in the countryside for low-wage contract work. These workers form the backbone of India’s cities, building the base for almost every industry. However, these workers live not only paycheck to paycheck, but also at times on daily wages— imposing massive financial insecurity on them. Amid coronavirus lockdowns imposed by the government, hundreds of thousands of workers have been rendered jobless, homeless, and hungry. Many American and European companies that manufacture in India also use contract labor, and have now left these workers to fend for themselves— something they could not even imagine doing in their own countries. Moreover, a ban on railway travel to prevent the spread of the disease has forced these impoverished migrants, sometimes with their families, to walk hundreds of miles to their villages. I plan on spending my summer engaging in conversations with these workers and the forces that keep them in these situations— the business owners, landlords, moneylenders, government officials, and finally the consumer. Growing up privileged in a poor country like India, I find myself deeply committed to these issues and desperately in search of the ethical path. I look forward to a very fruitful summer.

Arihant Drabu is a rising third-year from New Delhi, pursuing a double major in Economics and Political Science. He’s passionate about areas of Governance and Developmental Economics, and plan on working in government in India after college. In his free time, he likes to debate with people, read, and watch movies. For his 2020 Kenan Summer Fellows project, he wishes to answer the question of whether it is ethical for someone to live in ignorance and use services that exploit migrant labor, thereby perpetuating the existing systems of injustice.

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