One Bad Apple?
Working for fair labor standards: Giving up Apples for Lent
I’ve always loved my iPod. My life is better because of it. Gone are the days when I had to fumble around with a bunch of unwieldy CDs. (Remember those?) I no longer need to impose on my beatnik, music-loving friends (you know who you are) whenever I need a special mix-tape or CD. Now, making playlists for any situation is so simple even the technologically-challenged (and yes, I’m referring to myself here) can do it.
No more arranging my schedule around my favorite public radio shows like, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell me,” or “This American Life.” These days I simply download the podcasts and listen to them on my own time.
And like the rest of the nation, I was deeply moved by the passing of Steve Jobs. I felt indebted to him for seemingly single-handedly revolutionizing our every day world, making what was once ridiculously complicated or even unthinkable as easy as (Apple) pie.
Then my bliss bubble was popped when I came across a news story. It was an article in the New York Times that indicated that perhaps Apple wasn’t as flawless as I thought it was. The story was about the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to overseas factories, and it recounted an incident in 2007 when weeks before the new iPhone was scheduled to hit store shelves, Steve Jobs insisted the screen be completely redesigned. He wanted it to be fashioned out of a more scratch-resistant material than had been used in the prototypes.
As the story goes, shipments of the new screen began arriving at the Chinese factory that assembled the iPhones in the middle of the night. A foreman mobilized 8000 workers from the factory’s on-site dormitories, gave them a biscuit and a cup of tea, and within thirty minutes the workers began twelve hour shifts around the clock. Within a few days, the factory was cranking out iPhones to the tune of 10,000 units a day.
“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” an Apple executive said of the factory.
Breathtaking? I was thinking more like heart-breaking.
“There’s no American plant that can match that,” the executive added.
He says that like it’s a bad thing. Unlike this executive, I don’t long for an America that has factories with working conditions like that; I long for a China that doesn’t.
Then another story caught my attention. This one was reported in the Daily Mail and it told of how Foxconn, a Chinese manufacturer that contracts with Apple to make iPads and iPhones, has installed nets around the windows of its facility to prevent further suicides after over a dozen workers leapt to their death. Foxconn now requires workers to sign pledges promising not to commit suicide.
Before I could recover from that one-two punch, there was yet another New York Times article about the harsh working conditions inside the factories of Foxconn and other suppliers and manufacturers of Apple products.
This story told of deadly factory fires caused by improper ventilation, excessive overtime that results in some employees working twelve-hour shifts (and sometime even double shifts) for up to seven days a week, child labor violations, on-the-job injuries, workers being forced to stand so long that their legs swell up to the point where they have a hard time walking, and workers experiencing nerve damage and other health problems after being forced to work with hazardous chemicals without proper precautions.
All that, plus being crammed into a dorm room with several people, in exchange for $17 to $22 a day.
So, who's in the mood to listen to some awesome music on my cool iPod? Me, neither.
Suddenly, my personal soundtrack for Apple hit a sour note. I guess you could say I lost that loving feeling. I felt betrayed — even conned. I saw my iPod in a whole new way — and it wasn’t pretty.
Before that moment, I never really thought about where my iPod came from. I guess it seemed almost other-worldly to me — a magical gift from the future, like all of Apple’s amazing products. I never considered the human beings whose hands had helped to assemble my cool gadget.
What did they look like? How many people did they have to share a dorm room with? How long was their shift that day? When was the last time they saw their families? How was their health? Did they ever think about suicide rather than face another day of helping to assemble iPods for people like me?
To be fair, Apple is in good company, as the expression goes. Plenty of other companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Motorola, have contracts with overseas factories to assemble their electronic devices. Apple is noteworthy, though, for a few reasons.
First, it wasn’t that long ago that the company considered it a point of pride that its products were manufactured in the U.S. Steve Jobs used to even brag about that — and for good reason. Now all of those manufacturing jobs have been shipped abroad. And as Jobs himself put it, "Those jobs aren't coming back."
Second, with the unparalleled popularity of iPhones, iPads and iPods, Apple has become the dominant player in the industry. Third, sources say Apple drives a harder bargain with its manufacturers and suppliers than other companies. When Apple pressures suppliers and manufacturers to lower their prices, corners are cut and workers pay the price.
Although progress has been made in the last couple of years, there is disagreement as to how much. Some question whether the higher-ups at Apple sincerely care about these issues or simply want to protect their reputation by giving lip service to them. But everyone agrees that many problems still remain.
“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.”
Harsh by American standards? More like harsh by anyone who has any standards at all.
I had always thought that Apple was not only innovative, but super cool and ethical, too. It ranks as one of the top three companies that young professionals want to work for, and it tops the list of the world's most admired companies. But these stories and quotes made Apple sound like just another corporation.
And that was my light bulb moment. Apple is a corporation. Yes, it makes amazing products. And true, it takes everything to the next level — and then a few more levels beyond that. And certainly we're grateful for the thousands of good jobs it provides here in the United States — including the additional 3600 jobs it just announced that it is adding right here in Austin. But it's not perfect. And at the end of the day, it is just a corporation.
And what do we know about corporations? They respond to consumer demand.
Consumer demand for goods that were produced in sustainable conditions was the midwife for the birth of the fair trade movement. Now consumers can buy products like coffee, sugar, cocoa, bananas and hand crafts that are fair trade-certified.
Consumers who didn’t want fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and other additives in their food fed the demand for a system whereby food and agricultural products can be certified as organic. Now consumers who choose to buy certified organic items can rest assured that these items have met certain standards.
After the 2006 movie Blood Diamond raised public awareness about the diamond trade, consumers began to ask question about where the diamonds they were buying came from. Now would-be brides and grooms can make it official by purchasing conflict-free diamonds and rock their rocks with a certified clear conscience.
Consumers’ interest in investing in companies that match their personal values gave rise to a wide array of socially responsible mutual funds. Whether your pet cause is the ethical treatment of animals, environmental responsibility, corporate governance or workplace safety, there are funds you can invest in that help you put your money where your mouth is.
The lesson is this: If we want Apple to provide us with devices that are built in factories with decent working conditions, it is up to us to demand it.
Experts agree that it is difficult to calculate how much more an iPhone would cost if it were manufactured in the U.S., but one estimate puts the mark-up at about $65 per phone. If the goal were simply to improve the conditions in the overseas factories rather than bringing the work home to the U.S., the per-phone mark-up presumably would be substantially less than that.
Earlier this year, Apple reported a staggering $13.06 billion in profits for the previous quarter alone, making it one of the most profitable quarters of any corporation in history. And Apple’s profit on iPhones alone reportedly averages out to hundreds of dollars per unit. This isn’t a company that’s struggling to get by. Clearly, there’s room in Apple’s bottom line to care about the health of the factory workers in China and still make a healthy profit.
But what if creating a meaningful certification process requires Apple and other companies to pass on some of that cost to consumers? Would I be willing to forego getting a new phone every year because I had to save up a little longer to be able to afford one?
Would I be cool with it if Apple only rolled out a new phone every other year so that its manufacturers and suppliers had a reasonable timeframe to build them — one that doesn’t require workers to be yanked from their dorm room beds in the middle of the night? Or would my sense of entitlement combined with the fact that I never have to see these workers cause me to conclude that my desire for cheap and instant gadget gratification is more important?
Lent may be well underway, but today I’m adding another item to the list of things I’ve given up this year. I pledge to not purchase a new phone, computer, tablet or MP3 player until there is a certification process that assures that the working conditions in the factories in which these devices are made meet certain minimum standards.
I don’t expect things to change by Easter, but the more people demand this, the sooner the day will come when we can buy these devices with a clear conscience. You don’t have to be Catholic to give something up for Lent. You just have to want a little time to think things over, or have a desire to make a change. Can I get an Amen to that?