Apple & China’s Laborers: The Heat is On

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.