Bad Apple Factories

Apple has been in the media spotlight a lot recently, but not for the debut of the new iPad or rumors of the next big product offering from the multinational tech giant. Two weeks ago, the Fair Labor Association, an industry watchdog group, released the findings of their investigation into the working conditions at the Foxconn factories in China, Apple’s largest supplier, finding widespread overtime compensation problems, as well as safety and health concerns. During peak operation the average employee worked more than 60 hours, and in some cases seven days a week. Of the 35,000 randomly selected employees surveyed by the FLA, 43 percent said that they had experienced or witnessed an accident.

These concerns with Apple supplier’s factories aren’t new, though. In fact this most recent investigation into the working conditions at these plants was undertaken because there had been so many other troubling accounts. I would think with Apple’s creative history, or at least with their global heavyweight status in the business world, why weren’t these problems  solved years ago?

In a New York Times article published in January, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza pointed out a couple of telling signs of Apple’s strength in the world of tech manufacturing. First, the article details that when Apple was manufacturing the first iPhone back in 2007, company executives visited a plant in China that had made a bid to manufacture the screen for the new phone. On their tour of plant, the executives found that the factory owners were constructing a huge new wing just in case Apple accepted their bid.

The article uses the story to make the valid point that U.S. manufacturing jobs have been migrating to Asia; however, I think there is another level to this story. If being one of Apple’s suppliers is enough of a reputation builder that factory owners are going to build a whole wing to a building just in case they get the bid, then it follows that Apple has the leverage to make these factories adopt regulations providing for the safety and ethical treatment of their employees.

This leverage is used for something else though. Another example in the Times article says that because of this leverage, Apple is able to go into these Asian factories and require that their whole cost structure be laid bare. Apple then proceeds to give these factories extremely small profit margins.

This basically forces the factories to treat workers the way that they do. If the factory owners want to make any kind of profit, their employees are going to have to work overtime and won’t always get paid for it. Proper ventilation won’t be put in, and aluminum dust explosions will cause injury and death.

Ironically, the leverage that Apple has gained by being one of the most forward-thinking companies in the world is being used to keep the standards at these Asian factories behind the times. Laws which prevented employees from being exploited and provided safe working conditions were passed in the early 20th century in the United States, but Apple is fine exporting these poor, outdated work conditions overseas.

I think, with America exporting its extreme consumer culture as well, that this is just the nature of multinational companies in general, as they seek to supply the demand. However, I (probably naively) expect a little more from Apple. They’ve led the way in technological creativity over the past two decades, but they don’t even try to apply that same ingenuity to the humane treatment of the employees in their factories.

The reason of course is simple. Apple makes a greater profit running their business this way. Even though they say they’re all about changing the world with groundbreaking technologies like the iPhone, they’re really just all about making money. Consumers don’t seem to care about the supplier’s working conditions, just look at all of the record sales Apple records with each new product release (I’m typing this on my MacBook Pro while my iPhone charges and my iPod synchs to my computer). In a New York Times poll conducted last November, 56 percent of people said they couldn’t think of anything negative about Apple while only 2 percent mentioned overseas labor practices at all.

I’m not really criticizing Apple’s dedication to a huge profit – that’s what businesses do. Apple even says that because they are able to manufacture the products the way they do and make the profits that they do, they are able to continually innovate the new products that the consumers demand. But if Apple is more beholden to their consumers, then their manufacturing process will never change. It is up to Apple itself to change these conditions; they have to want to change it.

Apple revolutionized the music industry, the film industry and the way we read. And with all of this they said they have changed the world, and I think they really have changed the world. But if they can change tech manufacturing and labor practices in the same way, then they might just have their biggest contribution to the world yet.

Joel Marshall is a third-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at jbmarsha@uci.edu.