Apple & China’s Laborers: The Heat is On

| Analysis

There is more and more discussion now about the working conditions in China, especially those workers that build consumer electronics. And especially Apple’s iProducts. Can any conclusions be drawn?

On Wednesday, the New York Times published an investigative article on working conditions in China for those who make consumer electronics. “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.” Much of the focus was on Apple, and some current and former Apple executives were quoted.

Made in ChinaThe article pointed out that Apple has a Supplier Code of Conduct and “has made significant strides in improving factories in recent years.” Apple has released a list of suppliers for the first time, and the supplier responsibility reports contain reports of abuses.

On the other hand, there are various comments that give one pause. A former Foxconn employee, who has been let go, said “Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost…. Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their [Apple’s] interests”

A former Apple executive, unnamed, said, “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on… “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

One way to look at this is from a business perspective. A company like Apple will go where the costs are the lowest. The opposing view is that lowering costs and making more money means allowing ever increasing abuses of employees to continue. Where does that end? Better working conditions raise product costs. This is the history of business all over the world ever since the start of the industrial age. The world economy walks a fine line in the middle of all that.

The cycle of public pressure is often brought to bear by journalism. A good example is Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a 1906 novel that exposed the lives of immigrant workers in the U.S. and the awful conditions of the meat packing industry. Now, a hundred and six years later, China faces the same issues.

Ultimately, the plight of the workers depends on them and public pressure by those who are informed about their conditions. Things get better in time, but we need to keep being reminded of that eternal business dilemma and when it gets out of control. That’s what the New York Times set out to do.

 

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17 Comments Leave Your Own

cb50dc

I’ve heard bits and pieces of this before, but the Times’ writers bring it together with much more perspective. This goes beyond the stock rationales such as “well, living conditions are different over there” and “most companies, especially tech, do pretty much the same, and worse.” (I do realize that in any industry employing hundreds of thousands [millions?] of workers, some accidents and tragedies are inevitable.)

Apple clearly, undeniably leads in product innovation. They have the means and the power to do so in safety and living conditions as well. Steve’s question of vision to John Sculley was about deciding between making sugar water or changing the world. I hope Tim Cook’s vision goes beyond changing how developed, wealthy countries use neat tech toys; I hope his vision goes to TRULY “changing the world” by raising the bar likewise on these profound social justice issues, and to prevent some of these worst situations.

As a stockholder, I’d be content to see my stock lose, say, 20-30% of its value if I KNEW that it was because of costs directly incurred by Apple making substantial, lasting, openly verifiable improvements in how their suppliers work regarding these issues. (I’d be even happier to see my stock take a hit if I knew it was because Apple chose to accept the much higher cost of manufacturing here in the U.S., with all that entails, but that’s another issue altogether.)

Please seriously consider voicing your concerns to CEO Tim Cook, tcook@apple.com.

STOCKHOLDERS may prefer to use the “Contact” link from the Board listing at http://investor.apple.com/faq.cfm?FaqSetID=6

Lee Dronick

As a stockholder, I?d be content to see my stock lose, say, 20-30% of its value if I KNEW that it was because of costs directly incurred by Apple making substantial, lasting, openly verifiable improvements in how their suppliers work regarding these issues. (I?d be even happier to see my stock take a hit if I knew it was because Apple chose to accept the much higher cost of manufacturing here in the U.S., with all that entails, but that?s another issue altogether.)

Human and worker rights aside I have a nagging feeling that moving production here should happen sooner rather than later. Hopefully it will never happen, but the political situation in western Pacific could soon heat up.

geoduck

Reason this article pisses me off so much is that it isn’t just as Apple issue. All computer, tv, gadget, and electrical anything company relies on the same system. Hell if you buy a GM car it likely has Chinese electronics made under these same conditions.

Important topic, yesI
Just an Apple problem as the article suggests? Not even close.

skipaq

As geoduck points out this is not simply an Apple issue. Do you shop at Wal-Mart or other like stores? The same system keeps the prices low in these places. Ever go to a major theme park and buy a souvenir of any kind? Guess where that $60 sweatshirt was made? It is not just electronics and car parts. Clearly the issue relates to the products made for Apple. But it is simplistic to think it is an Apple created problem.

First and foremost, this is an issue for the host country to address. They have an obligation to protect their citizens. Second, this is an issue for the State Departments of countries that do business with these countries. Third, companies like Apple need to apply all the influence they can to correct mistreatment that does take place.

These jobs, however, will not be coming back to the U.S. as long as the consumers here demand the lower prices of products made in China.

John Martellaro

geoduck: I think what’s happening is that when you’re the top dog, you take the most heat. Or, as I’ve mentioned from time to time, the wealthiest company bears the most responsibility.

geoduck

when you?re the top dog, you take the most heat. Or, as I?ve mentioned from time to time, the wealthiest company bears the most responsibility.

I agree, but with a caveat.  Apple is the biggest company in the world and so has a larger share of the responsibility. However what portion of the World GDP, or even the US GDP is Apple’s? Not the lions share by any means. If Apple demanded major changes it would impact a small portion of the economy. That would hurt Apple and in the end do nothing to fix the problem.

This is an issue that we all have to accept. Unfortunately this sort of an article scapegoats Apple so Dell, HP and LG users can sit smugly drinking their morning coffee (made in by a machine produced in the same sweatshop) and think how glad they are that they aren’t part of the problem.

These jobs, however, will not be coming back to the U.S. as long as the consumers here demand the lower prices of products made in China.

Very true. A few years ago I heard someone on NPR who called it ‘The Wallmart Syndrome’. People always looking at the cost of something not the value pushes the cost down so you end up with $5 toasters made in the third world by people paid slave wages that break in a year, are unrepairable and end up in a landfill. It’s bad for the workers, bad for the environment, and ultimately bad for all of us.

The Titanic didn’t sink because of the fat guy on the deck. There were deeper problems.

skipaq

You should read the following article which provides some responses from people in China:

http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/01/27/chinese_respond_to_report_on_apples_suppliers_in_china.html

Doug

This is a quick comment before work, so I apologize if it’s too brief.

1) I’m glad Apple is conducting the supplier audits and publishing their results from year to year, as well as partnering with a third-party like the Fair Labor Association. I think it demonstrates a recognition that serious problems exist and must be addressed.

2) I think that a good deal of Apple’s customers care about whether the people who manufacture these wonderful products have decent working conditions. After all, we want to experience expressions of beauty through these products, and we appreciate the holistic manner in which that beauty is expressed. Any instances of inhumane treatment of the products’ workers is an ugly dissonance with Apple’s brand, and that’s why I think it is in the company’s enlightened self-interest to purposefully and actively address issues that they discover through their audits.

- Doug

Lee Dronick

Thanks for that link Skipaq

Sam

SHARE THIS IMAGE Raise awareness of unsafe conditions for Apple’s employees.

zewazir

Give it a rest.  Reactionary crap like those images just ends up making people look stupid.

As has been pointed out, Apple has been putting pressure on their suppliers to improve conditions for their workers.  How much is Apple supposed to do?  Take over the Chinese government so they can force laws into place protecting the Chinese workers?  What about all the other electronics companies who use components made in China?  (Anyone remember the line from the movie Deep Impact “Components.  American components, Russian components, all made in Taiwan!”) The FACTS (as opposed to reactionary emo pasture patties) indicate Apple is doing more than average in this particular international issue.  Now, you want MORE done, buy Apple products, because you know damned well that companies like Samsung don’t give a ripe pig fart about workers’ conditions.

Why is it people have to go off at the mouth, leaving anything remotely resembling genuine cognition behind (thus proving how “open minded” they are) on these kinds of things?  One of the very few companies that actually HAS even a minimal supplier code of ethics, which they use to push for better conditions in their overseas suppliers’ factories, an all the media and liberal followers of trash journalism can do is demonize them because a) they are high profile, and b) they aren’t perfect. (With perfection being defined by people whose version of reality comes from drug induced hallucinations of utopia.)

Sam

While I think you could find a more mature way to express your opinion. You made some very valid points and I agree with a lot of what you said. Thanks for responding. I realize after reading up more on the issue that it of course goes beyond Apple to every other company that sells electronics. I agree that Apple has done more than many other companies. Foxconn is also one of the better factories in China. My main concern is the instances where employees have worked over 60 hours a week in order to meet demand. And also when poisonous chemicals have been used to clean products.

zewazir

IMO, complaints about working 60 hours/week are due to our society being basically spoiled rotten. Ask any rancher what they think about a 60 hour work week. Also, I remember when I first entered the full time work force, we would have jumped at the chance of working 60 hours instead of being limited to 40.  Of course, we also had the added incentive of receiving time-and-a-half for those extra 20 hours. But when starting out with little more to your name than a 20 y.o vehicle and a hide-a-bed couch, needing to not only maintain a decent household but also save for college, having 20 extra hours work per week - even at base pay (ie: taking on a second job) - was not considered a hardship, but as an OPPORTUNITY.  I would suggest that we pay more attention to the opinions of those working for, what to them, is a good paying steady job, instead of applying our spoiled, silver-spoon standards to their situation.

Now, for using poison chemicals to clean things, name a good cleaner than ISN’T poison in some way. Most household cleaners I know of contain some derivative of ammonia, among other things, none of which are exactly healthy to be exposed to constantly for long periods. Of course, there should be reasonable precautions and safety devices and or equipment to limit exposure to any cleaners, but as with the anti-Apple rhetoric permeating this issue, I have a strong feeling the complaints are more about flame baiting than accurate reporting.

Sam

FYI, you make a lot of assumptions. I started working when I was sixteen and have continued to support myself through college. Also, I said over 60 hours which in most instances is over 80 hours. Standing in the same place for extended periods of time causing their legs to swell.

Moreover the chemicals used might be a little worse than household cleaners:

n-hexane

twenty employees let crippled by chemicals used to clean products.

Once again, I can agree with you that Apple is not the only company doing this so these other companies deserve just as much of the limelight—probably more. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing they can do more to change things. I am a fan of Apple and their dedication to innovation and am confident they will make the needed changes.

zewazir

But that doesn?t mean that there is nothing they can do more to change things.

Yea, right.  Continue to pound on one of the few (VERY few) who are actually doing something positive. “Because they’re not doing enough.“Cutting off their nose to spite their face will do nothing, and pushing too hard, such as dumping a company that refuses Apple’s suggestions, is more likely to put those “poor, overworked people” back into the poverty stricken rural areas from whence they came.

And where is all the outrage for other companies? (Not you, specifically, though the best you’ve done there is “agree with (my) points”.  I’ll tell you where the “outrage” is - it does not exist because attacking other companies does not get the press time and consumer reaction attacking Apple does.  In short, this is not about people in China. It IS about the money the media gets for publishing a story that gets a lot of reaction. Plain and simple.

Sam

I never said anything about “dumping” the company. The fact that you can never concede on any of your positions only shows that you don’t care about reality, you only care about being right and you are only looking at one side of the issue. Of course it isn’t as bad as the media advertises and wants people to think it is but that doesn’t mean we should all just ignore the problem completely and accept the status quo. I also am not advocating a boycott of Apple products but the problem needs to be talked about and all of the companies involved (DELL, HP, and pretty much every other company that makes electronics) need to be told by their clients that they want fair and safe working conditions for everyone. It would be foolish to insist they don’t do business with those factories as it would leave the workers without a way to support their families.

zewazir

What you refuse to acknowledge is I am not talking about YOUR reaction. I am talking about the existence of the plainly, unfairly, and hopelessly biased report, and the way some people (ie: the one who posted images of bleeding Apple logos), who are the ones actually ignoring reality in favor of their views.  My entire point, which, while you claim to agree, completely miss, is that the entire issue is NOT about the people of China, but rather about certain media outlets generating revenue for themselves through the use of popular flame bait.  THAT is what I am objecting to.

BTW: I am not the one who metioned 60 hour work week in one post, then upped it to “over 80” when that complaint was countered. (Even then, most ranchers I know would smile at getting away with an 80 hour work week.)

Are the conditions of humanity in other countries an issue worth talking about? Yes, as long as we realize our society has been fed with the silver spoon for so long we’ve all but forgotten what a strong work ethic looks like. There was a time when 60 hour work weeks were considered an example of a strong work ethic.  Now they’re viewed as abusive.  I do not agree with that change in view.

Is attacking one of the few companies in the U.S. who actually has a demonstrable track record of doing something about the work conditions in the companies they purchase from a good way to make those conditions better? Only if you’re a brain dead reactionary.  Again, the ONLY reason Apple was targeted is because headlines about Apple gets more attention than other companies which have much worse track records in who they do business with. Which means the article was about getting more money for the media outlet(s), NOT about exposing anything.

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