Dear Apple: Do something about Chinese working conditions

As stories keep emerging about terrible working conditions in consumer-electronics factories, it's time for Apple to step up. They've got the power and the cash to make meaningful change. Let's hold them to it.

Open letter to Apple: You have the power to force good working conditions across the consumer-electronics industry, and it's time to make it happen.

Over the past year or so, stories about working conditions at Chinese manufacturers have trickled into the public consciousness. There were spikes of awareness when, for example, an explosion at the Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China, killed four. Then again when another factory explosion occurred a few weeks later.

Most recently, an amazingly detailed story from The New York Times and a heartbreaking episode of This American Life highlighted conditions in China, and Apple's role specifically as the largest contractor of consumer-electronics devices in the region.

But while the media has been talking about these working conditions for about a year and a half, Apple has known firsthand about the problems for years, and, let's be honest, has allowed them to continue.

The company has been actively auditing its suppliers for labor, health, safety, and other concerns since 2007. Yet, as the Times points out, problems remain--the kinds of problems that kill people. It's time for Apple to get serious, publicly and with vehemence, about addressing safety and rights violations, and firing suppliers who don't comply.

Is it fair to single out Apple? Some of my colleagues have argued that we, the consumers, share the blame for these problems by turning a willful blind eye to abuses in other parts of the world, and greedily gobbling up every new device that rolls off the truck.

Sure, consumers are part of the larger solution, and dollars speak loudly. But fair or unfair, one company has the economic power, the sheer volume, and the boots on the ground to make true change happen quickly. That's Apple.

And Apple is the only consumer-electronics manufacturer in the world pulling in oil-company caliber revenues. Think about it: Apple just announced $13 billion in pure profit in a single quarter. In total, they sold $46.33 billion in goods and services. The company got there by riding its legendary legacy of never compromising, never accepting "no" for an answer, and of squeezing margins so it can release new and improved products virtually every year at the same price as the year before.

The New York Times' sources point specifically to Apple's particularly demanding cost and efficiency standards, which drive factories to make safety trade-offs in order to get the work done.

By contrast, Times sources made it clear that not every company has such strict insistence on high margins. From the story:

Executives at multiple suppliers, in interviews, said that Hewlett-Packard and others allowed them slightly more profits and other allowances if they were used to improve worker conditions.

In addition, no company does planned obsolescence as well as Apple. The upgrade cycle for Apple products is punishing--you will be left behind if you don't upgrade regularly. You'll be left out of key features like Siri or system-wide speech to text. Future software upgrades will be so demanding as to virtually require new hardware. You'll buy an amazing laptop that mysteriously lacks a feature it used to have, like a backlit keyboard, and the backlit keyboard will reappear in the next model a year later.

And of course, you'll be bombarded with ads and social messaging about the latest upgrade. No company markets its products as efficiently as Apple; we all know this. Every other tech company in the world, whether it's Facebook, HP, RIM, or Microsoft, is trying to stage its own keynote events, dreaming of creating the kind of media frenzy that Apple can generate even with a fairly pedestrian announcement.

Apple's greatest advantage is creating legions of willing buyers, enthralled by the latest keynote or iRelease, getting in line to upgrade as soon as the upgrade is available.

Should those consumers be less enthralled? Should they be immune to marketing magic, a nation of Upton Sinclairs questioning every message and demanding to know how it is that these iPhones just keep appearing, as if by magic, at the exact same price year after year? If they did that, there'd be no $13 billion in pure profit--and that's just exactly the problem, isn't it?

But that's not to say that consumers don't care, and as the media keeps this story alive, I hope they'll also join me in asking Apple to take the lead on serious reform. It will work. Charles Duhigg wrote The New York Times piece detailing suppliers' accounts of working conditions in China. As he points out in this episode of Reporters' Roundtable, the textiles industry suffered a legitimate PR onslaught over its use of child labor and cruel labor practices in manufacturing Nike shoes and Gap clothes.

He points to a "consistent drumbeat of awareness" and criticism that reminds companies about their social obligation to the world. In the case of Gap, the company made serious, public changes and moved to protect its reputation and improve its practices. The drumbeat worked. So let's keep that drumbeat going here.

Personally, I believe Apple has never been in a better position to do the right thing. Tim Cook has already responded--even if just internally--to employee and media concerns over Foxconn and other plants. He promises the company will "dig deeper," and he notes:

"We know of no one in our industry doing as much as we are, in as many places, touching as many people."

That's exactly right--and yet, it hasn't been enough, for reasons of priority and profit. It's time to do more. We'll be watching.

 

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