Tweets often move faster than facts. True, the Apple web store was down for a bit yesterday, but when it came back up, no new iPad or iPhone 5. Indeed, the only notable difference I could see was the prominence of Apple’s report on ‘Supplier Responsibility‘ for 2012.
Which proved to be a ‘fortuitous’ move, given the fact that yesterday The New York Times published a scathing and in-depth report about workers’ conditions at technology-suppliers Foxconn in China. A significant portion of Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu exploded in May 2011, killing four workers. Which slowed output of iPad 2s, which caught peoples’ attention. Which inspired investigations into what was going on at Foxconn. Which are now coming to light and showing the terribly rough conditions at the factory/city. For which Apple is taking most of the heat. Is that fair?
The story was written by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, and the environment at the plant could perhaps be summarized in this early paragraph of their article:
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.
The explosion was followed by workers’ riots in the summer and over the last few months Foxconn has strung a network of safety nets to catch workers trying to jump to their own deaths.
Although information about the hastily built factory and its militarized working conditions has been trickling out since at least the summer of 2010 (See an Al-Jazeera report here), it seems now to be heading toward a critical mass of awareness. Both Apple and its millions of customers find themselves caught between their ideals and their desires.
Under Steve Jobs’s tutelage, Apple became the wealthiest company in American (with quarterly profits of over $13.5 billion at the end of 2011 alone). And it also presented itself as a company ready to make changes to improve working conditions and environmental impact. Apple was one of the first companies to impose annual ‘audits’ of suppliers’ working conditions and practices (since 2005). Apple even holds the right to terminate contracts if these audits show consistent abuse of working standards.
Customers have been able to purchase the most stylish and hip (and often, for full disclosure, the best) computing and mobile technologies while simultaneously enjoying the feeling they are themselves cool for supporting such an ethical company.
Yet Apple has been openlyand charities. Moreover, as all the reports demonstrate, Apple has found (and reported) thousands of violations in its audits and has terminated not one contract (True enough: individuals have been fired, but no structural changes have been requested, much less implemented). And customers salivate for the next device (vis the tweet above), even if, for most of the last decade, Apple has never release a mainline product or update without presenting to the public via a keynote first.
C|Net has posted this video discussion of what the Times report has opened up for discussion, and why Apple has been singled out, even though Foxconn makes parts for HP, Sony, and a number of other tech companies.
Perhaps the crushing concern for Apple is that it has raised the standards (vaguely) for its western consumers about these issues, while trying to soft pedal the details of what goes into the production of millions of mobile devices in Asia. So as the rotten core is getting exposed by tragedy and disruption (that even the state-intimidated Chinese media will cover and follow up on!), we will follow this story with you.
The public-relations bruise could be deep. Will Apple take more stringent measures against Foxconn? Will workers’ situations there change for the better? Will customers back off the next product update? Are we cynics when we suggest the answers will be ‘No,’ ‘Not really,’ and ‘Hell no!’?