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Letter To The Editor: Apple Needs To Walk The Walk Toward Economic Justice

Patch user Brian Walker is calling for Apple to live up to the standards it published in its supplier code of conduct.

A recent NY Times article by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza (published Jan. 25, 2012) on conditions inside the factories of Apple’s largest suppliers has caused quite a dust up. A must read!

The well-written piece details a seedy underbelly to the workings of the world’s most profitable corporation – the “sausage works” that no one wants to see.  The article catalogs harsh working conditions, replete with worker punishments, intimidations, high suicide rates, and unhealthy working conditions.  The conditions at Foxconn (the main supplier cited in the article) are not surprising, given the demanding production schedules that the suppliers must adhere to.  What is surprising to me, however, is the lack of hue and cry throughout the progressive community over these reported worker abuses.

It’s time for Apple, as a world leader in electronics innovation and manufacturing technologies, to fulfill the spirit of their published supplier code of conduct.  You can’t tell suppliers out of one side of your mouth to treat their workers ethically, and out of the other side demand pricing and production schedules that force the suppliers to find a way to get more production out of cost-limited resources.

The article quotes a former Apple executive as saying “You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” and adding, “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”

The ethical dilemma highlighted is that consumers continue to demand more technology for lower cost in dollars, and that this demand appears to be butting headlong into the constraint of the human elements involved in the production of this technology. 

From the article: 

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive.

“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.” 

It’s time for all progressive-minded consumers to apply the same standards to your electronic conveniences that you apply to other consumer relationships (e.g. demanding “conflict-free” diamonds, “dolphin-safe” tuna, or “green” energy).  Anything less ignores reality, at best.  The tricky part to square up, of course,  is that it may be that the overall standard of living has improved for many Chinese workers as a result of the electronics manufacturing boom driven in part by demand for Apple’s products.

Update Feb. 9, 2012.  An article released today on the CNN Money website details the latest developments, including a petition signed by over 250,000 people demanding that Apple work to improve conditions at its supplier’s factories. 

(Ed. note: for an opposing viewpoint on this subject, go here). 

What do you think about this controversy? Would you give up your iPhone or iPad in the name of economic justice? Do you believe the workers at Foxcomm are being unfairly treated? Tell us your thoughts in the comments. 

Robert Rothgery February 11, 2012 at 02:12 AM
I don't buy a word of this. Tim Worstall in Forbes, (linked in the article above), states that the suicide rate in China is 22 per 100,000. If that statistic were applied to the 230,000 workers on Apple products there should be 51 lost souls not 19. Then Mr. Walker seems to imply that Apple users are progressives or creatives. True, apple has been an excellent, some would say a superior solution, for image editing of all kinds. But all kinds of people do that kind of work. I have friends who are Apple users and have to take the train everywhere because they can't find an airliner with two right wings. Lastly Mr. Walker ignores the fact that 2/3 of the Foxcomm employees work on platforms other than Apple. I can't buy Walker's argument because his claims are just not supported by the facts.
Brian Walker February 11, 2012 at 05:40 PM
Robert, Thanks. I was just echoing a discussion that is currently unfolding, and adding a few thoughts of my own. I have been in discussions with people recently who have said something like... yeah, yeah, China labor... but I don't want to think about that, my iPhone is too important to me. What ever else is true about factory life at Foxxconn, it's not that common in my experience to hear about people to be jumping off the roof of the place they work (not since 1929 anyway).
Bill Schilz February 12, 2012 at 04:30 PM
While enthralled with the vast array of very cool electronic gadgets coming out of Apple, how many of us ever stop to think how these products are made? With Apple being the darling of corporations in the U.S., I think we may all ASSUME that it is a leader and they are on the forefront of labor rights and employment oversight to ensure workers are treated MORE than fairly. This expose' seems to indicate differently... I can only imagine the demands made of Foxconn by Steve Jobs to meet production schedules and keep costs down, while producing superior products. If this was an expose of Exxon-Mobil or Bank of America, Americans across the nation would be OUTRAGED! Where is the outrage? Could it be that we selectively choose who we want to hold responsible? Will we holder Apple accountable for the leadership they have extolled over the years in the human rights area? Thanks for posting this Jim... it is a very thought provoking story! I posted the CBS story on YouTube so you can hear the full story. http://youtu.be/9jOgRpO5i94

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