With surprisingly coincidental timing, Apple today released a statement about working conditions in the Chinese factories they employ that has nothing to do with the recent This American Life story, honest. They’ve announced that they will now produce a continually updated list of all the suppliers they do business with and they have put an independent, non-profit organisation in charge of conducting audits of the factories. Sounds like good progress right? Well, not really. While it does seem like Apple is trying to take this issue more seriously, there’s a few problems:
- The list simply shows a bunch of company names, it doesn’t list what factories they are using or even what cities or countries they are in. Saying you buy services from Foxconn is all well and good but it’s a company with nearly a million employees all over the world.
- This Fair Labour Association they’ve appointed to do the audits has only worked with the clothing industry. One would presume they will read up on the high tech industry and the specific manufacturing challenges it has but was there no one with actual experience in the field they could turn to?
- They claim the audits will be unannounced but these companies have ears everywhere and many of the audits where they “fix” the results are also supposedly unannounced. They did not address how they will overcome this challenge.
- Neither the auditors nor Apple themselves will release which factories are checked, who owns them or which ones are found in violation of standards and how. The only way we will find out if Apple has stopped dealing with a supplier is if their name disappears from the list and we will never know the reason.
- The audits will only cover 5% of the factories Apple deals with.
I bolded that last point because it’s by far the most important one. This organisation, contracted by the world’s most valuable company will be auditing a percentage of Apple factories so low that it is within the statistical margin of error for most scientific surveys. Could this possibly be any more limp an attempt at dealing with this problem? I understand that as a non-profit, the Fair Labour Association probably doesn’t have a Foxconn sized workforce and that Apple can’t give them the funding to hire more staff without potentially contaminating their results. Nonetheless, audits this small make the whole process look like a public relations gesture more than a meaningful attempt to improve anything. I’m sure this will silence some of their critics and the Apple cultists both in the press and the public at large will show that this is them owning up to the problem and cracking down on worker abuse. In reality, this appears to me to be little more than a smokescreen and an attempt to rile up their fanbase to drown out those trying to expose a serious problem.
I’m not naive and I know that working conditions in Chinese factories is not a problem Apple created, nor are they the only or by far the worst offender. Part of the reason why we hear about this so much is indeed because their products are so hot right now and get a lot of attention. Foxconn has many customers and was run this way long before Apple became their biggest one. I single them out here partially because the published stories are about the factories where Apple products are made but also for another reason.
With their historic combination of simultaneously being the world’s most valuable company who has massive margins relative to their competitors and their uniquely rabid and growing fanbase, no one on Earth is in a better position to draw attention to this issue and affect change than Apple is. For better or worse, almost all their competitors are in a constant struggle to just keep up with, if not surpass many of their innovations. If Apple came out tomorrow and said “We’re going to make a little bit less on each product we sell in order to ensure our Chinese partners pay their workers fairly and treat them with respect.”, that would start a wave in the tech industry and their competitors could be forced to make similar commitments, lest they look like cold uncaring corporate monsters which less face it, they all are anyway. Imagine if they also did something like give a free iPad to everyone who works on Apple assembly lines. According to Mike Daisey’s story, most of the people who build them have never even seen them turned on. If they suddenly got to experience the end result of their hard work and were told “This makes millions of people happy and we want you to have one for free because you’re a part of that.”, I think that would do wonders for morale by making them feel even a little bit of appreciation. With Apple’s profits, it would cost them virtually nothing to do this.
Many people in the world see Apple as the gold standard for technology and indeed how to run a company in general. I think it’s their responsibility to uphold the standard they set for themselves in everything they do, not just the things their consumers can easily see. They have a great opportunity here to make the world better for everyone. There will be some investment involved but frankly, they can afford it and the potential benefits could outweigh that. All we have now is a half-hearted attempt to look like they care when in reality, they’re just waiting out the news cycle Mike Daisey and This American Life created. It’s clear you consider yourselves better than this Apple, start acting like it. I think you owe the workers that much.