Rotten to the core?

Apple have recently been criticised for their attitude towards workers’ rights, but Conor O’Nolan explains that the company is perhaps not as unethical as it seems

Apple have come under fire in the last few years for their attitude toward workers’ rights, particularly in relation to their involvement with a company named Foxconn. Foxconn assemble a large proportion of Apple’s products, with some components coming from other suppliers. Foxconn also build products for Sony, Samsung, Intel, Dell, HP, Microsoft and a large proportion of the other main industry giants, to the point where it is almost difficult to own products that have not been in part manufactured by Foxconn.

What exactly is the problem with Foxconn? Foxconn is the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic components. They employ over 900,000 people spread over three continents. Their largest complex is based in Shenzhen, China, which is where the majority of the controversy surrounding the company originates. A multiple of one hundred thousand people (exact counts are impossible to obtain) are employed in this factory. Working conditions are terrible; staff are routinely mistreated and are forced to abide by an exceptionally severe code of conduct that can result in their wages reportedly being docked for simply not walking at the right speed. Those that chose to live in the compound (and a least a quarter of them do), live in immensely cramped dormitories which often have barred windows to prevent workers from jumping out of them. Employee suicide is not an uncommon occurrence, and earlier this year a group of 300 workers threatened suicide if they did not receive a pay rise.

Apple cannot be accused of inaction in this area. They have approached Foxconn in an effort to increase the workers’ base wage, which Foxconn then raised. However, Foxconn subsequently raised daily quotas for each employee and started to place extreme controls on employee abilities to claim overtime. Apple attempted to solve the problem, and in turn, Foxconn’s greed undid any progress that appeared to have been made.

Apple’s reasoning behind operating out of China is fairly reasonable. The costs are infinitely cheaper and the supply chain is much more accommodating. If Apple were to operate out of America, the average manufacturing worker would be paid about thirty-four dollars an hour as opposed to the average manufacturing wage in China, which is approximately two dollars an hour. Operating solely out of China also allows for incredible flexibility in manufacturing. The classic example of this was the late Steve Jobs’ decision to make iPhones have glass screens. This decision was made just a month before the iPhone was actually due to launch, so it required a major overhaul of existing iPhone stocks. If this were to be done in America, the costs would have been astronomical and the turnaround time would likely have been a great deal longer.

Yet why does Apple take so much flack, while their competitors and industry colleagues receive little or no attention for their usage of the Chinese supply chain? Why does Apple have protests organised against them when others with an equal or even greater market share don’t receive any attention for the same issues? The answer almost certainly lies in the perception of the Apple brand. Apple is a computer company with a slightly hipster origin story. They have a focus on aesthetics. They seem to be honestly concerned about their environmental impact, and actually act on this concern. Their products are often seen as a fashion accessory and are highly sought after, despite cheaper and equally functional machines being readily available. They are seen as a ‘cool’ brand, and there is a daft expectation that every ‘cool’ brand must have completely ethically sound manufacturing and assembly processes. Microsoft, for example, was not a ‘cool’ brand to begin with, despite endless attempts to change their image, and as a result, no one seems to be angry that Xboxes are made in a similar way to iProducts.

A comparison can be drawn between Apple and American Apparel, and the controversy surrounding their CEO, Dov Charney. AA are a sort of ‘ethical Penneys’, manufacturing and selling low cost, high quality clothes, while operating exclusively out of America, paying all of their factory workers a fair wage and treating them well. AA is another ‘trendy’ brand and when reports surfaced that the CEO had sexual harassment lawsuits taken out against him, there was an intense backlash from the public. While this backlash probably wasn’t helped by some of the more creative advertising decisions made by the Charney over the years, the concept of boycotting a company who are renowned for treating their workers so fairly seems strange in the context of allegations of staff exploitation on the part of some competing corporations.

Are Apple evil? Not really; they are as guilty of exploiting foreign workers as almost every other electronics company. They have recently released ‘Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct’ and seem genuinely intent on improving the conditions for the workers making their goods, and considering their environmental policies and how well they treat their non-outsourced staff, it would appear that they are not such a bad Apple after all.