Apple’s big chance to ‘act different’ on labor

February 22, 2012

There’s been quite a bit of controversy swirling lately around iPhones and iPads — not about whether the products are good, or whether Google or Microsoft can beat Apple at its game. The questions, rather, have centered on just where Apple’s products come from and how they’re made.

The spotlight was focused on the company when the New York Times published a series of articles that questioned not only Apple’s commitment to a US-based workforce, but its concern for workers overseas — namely those at Chinese factories.

This week, the ABC News program “Nightline” aired a report from inside factories at Foxconn, one of the largest contractors in China tasked with assembling the technology that Americans (and the rest of the world) can’t get enough of. It’s also the place where a spate of seemingly work-related suicides forced management to install “suicide nets” on buildings to stop workers from jumping to their deaths.

While the ABC report didn’t shed a lot of new light on practices at the factory, it did raise some interesting points that most Americans are probably unaware of. For instance, did you know that it takes five days and 325 sets of hands to make a single iPad? Did you know that those hands belong to workers who get paid about $1.78 an hour and work 12-hour days?

Many of those employees live in dorms on the Foxconn campus, where small rooms can sleep six to eight people. Even more surprising is that workers actually pay to live in these dorm rooms — $17.50 a month, according to ABC.

ABC interviewed employees at the factory who complained of low wages and long hours, but didn’t show much of what has been alleged to be happening at places like Foxconn: underage workers, inhumane conditions, and falsified records about safety practices, to name just a few.

Apple has responded vocally to the insinuation that it has been turning a blind eye to subpar working conditions and unfair labor practices.

A spokesperson said that the company insists on safety and respect for workers, and that suppliers “must live up to [our] requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple.”

The company even went as far as hiring an outside group called the Fair Labor Association to audit Foxconn and report on its findings. Though the FLA has come under attack from watchdog groups who say the organization has misreported working conditions before, the company is headed by a man named Auret van Heerden, who has something of a track record. While fighting for workers’ rights in apartheid-era South Africa, van Heerden was reportedly jailed and tortured.

So it would seem that a conversation has started that is rather significant, both to the electronics industry as a whole and to the wider world. We’re starting to discover that the shiny toys we buy and use don’t just magically appear. Producing them requires hard work from many thousands of people, and that work isn’t always fair or humane.

But that raises another question, one that may be more important than “what is Apple doing?” That question is what are we doing — as individuals, as governments — to enforce fair treatment around the world? Are Americans willing to pay more for an iPhone if it means fair treatment of workers? Would you be willing to wait longer to get the latest gadget if you knew it was humanely produced? If you didn’t have to worry that the work could drive someone to suicide?

And it’s not just about Apple. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company may be the thought leader and biggest earner in technology, but it is not the only player in this game. Far from it. The places where iPhones come from also produce products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Sony, Lenovo and more.

This isn’t an Apple problem, it’s an industry problem.

More to the point, it’s a human rights problem, one that needs to be dealt with head-on. We can’t sit passively by, complaining that Foxconn isn’t fair to its workers while also demanding the lowest-cost electronics and fastest iteration of new products. As consumers, we have a responsibility to ask that the companies who make our technology do better than this. That they do better than the status quo.

For Apple, this marks its first big test as the leader of the new economy.

If you tell everyone that you’re different from the rest of the industry (which Apple has been doing for years), people will expect different behavior. This is the company’s crucible — a chance to show that it doesn’t just “think different,” but that it acts “different” too.

For the rest of the electronics makers out there who are tired of playing catch-up to Apple, here’s an opportunity. Show us a plan for how you’ll produce your products more fairly, and then execute on that plan.

Show that you can be thought leaders too, because this isn’t just a one-company issue — and it won’t go away tomorrow just because that’s what you’d prefer.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site.

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