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.