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Mike Elk examines Steve Jobs' record on workers' rights

Progressives and conservatives alike praised Jobs as someone who had revolutionized industry with Apple’s innovative computer designs. “Thanks Steve for pushing for designs that have humans at the center,” blogger Ario Jafarzadeh tweeted.

While Jobs’ designs for computers may have put humans at their center, working conditions for Apple’s workers put profits at their center. Jobs did indeed revolutionize the computer industry, but in a way that was negative for American workers, who for decades have seen manufacturing job prospects dwindle as jobs go to workers overseas, who in turn often labor in brutal sweatshop conditions.

Many people may find it distasteful to critique the life’s work of a man in poor health, but I think it’s necessary to critique Job’s labor practices: I’m certain most profiles of Jobs’ tenure will completely avoid mentioning systematic labor rights violations that occur at Apple.

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Between the 1970s and now, the computer industry economic footprint grew from being a $20 billion a year industry to $200 billion a year. At the peak of U.S. employment in the computer industry, there were two million people employed in making computers in the United States.

Now, with most computer manufacturing being done overseas, there are only 150,000 Americans employed in the computer industry ... who wants to reverse the trend.

As industrialists like Steve Jobs have shipped the bulk of their manufacturing overseas to take advantage of cheap exploitable labor, the United States’ trade deficit in high-tech products has grown. (It was $31.2 billion last year, but is already $43.6 billion this year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.)

The labor practices in most of those countries manufacturing Apple products would shock most liberal appraisers of Jobs’ legacy. Apple has continued to use a Chinese contractor, Foxconn, to produce its iPads and iPhones, despite allegations of the company’s horrific workers’ rights abuses. Foxconn routinely forces it workers to worktwo to three times the legal Chinese limitand to work in brutal and often unsafe conditions that have led to many accidents, as Michelle Chen reported for Working In These Times. These working conditions led to 10 Foxconn worker suicides at the company’s Shenzhen facility in 2010 alone. ...

On the home front, the company’s labor practices are also far from perfect, as a recent organizing drive by Apple’s retail workers has brought to light. At its retail stores, the company prefers to hire part-time workers and keeps many employees working part-time who wish to be full-time employees. As a result, many workers cannot afford to buy Apple’s health insurance, as Josh Eidelson reported last month for Working In These Times.

In addition, Apple has faced allegations of age discrimination from older employees who claimed they have been denied promotions or job opportunities at Apple stores as a result of their age. (Anybody who has ever gone to an Apple Store and noticed the age of employees can verify that most workers are under 30.)

You’d expect that at least Apple’s vaunted software engineers would be treated well. But Jobs has faced allegations that Apple broke anti-trust law by working with other computer companies to keep the salaries of software engineers artificially low.

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