Apple at vanguard of consumer electronics labor accusations

Jan 26, 2012
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Apple's production practices have come under renewed scrutiny this week, amid claims that the company knowingly overlooked continued labor abuses in Chinese factories as it benefited from low manufacturing costs. A controversial piece by the NYTimes cites several sources at Foxconn and from Apple itself, with suggestions that the Cupertino firm "never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost" despite its high-profile responsibility report. However, criticism of the report has flourished, suggesting it unfairly targets Apple when most consumer electronics companies outsource production in the same way.

"We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on ... Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice" Anonymous former Apple executive

According to insiders, Apple - and other companies - face "an unresolved tension" internally over awareness of labor conditions at suppliers and the ongoing pressure to reduce product costs and maintain a rapid production schedule. That tension, it's suggested by one former Apple exec, is a partial reason why annual supplier checks such as those the company carries out are undermined. "If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it," the ex-employee suggested "Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear."

A follow-up report quoted responses from Chinese readers, many expressing frustration at the work conditions and the apparent willingness of Western consumers to overlook what goes on at Foxconn and other factories. However, others took issue at the Apple focus of the report, suggesting that the outlook at companies supplying Samsung, Lenovo and other firms is no better:

"If not to buy Apple, what’s the substitute – Samsung? Don’t you know that Samsung’s products are from its OEM factory in Tianjin? Samsung workers’ income and benefits are even worse than those at Foxconn. If not to buy iPad – (do you think) I will buy Android Pad? Have you ever been to the OEM factories for Lenovo and ASUS? Quanta, Compaq … factories of other companies are all worse than those for Apple" Anonymous commenter

In the end, then, the onus appears to be on the end-consumer: a focus on price above all else will only force all electronics suppliers to chase the bottom line in production.

"You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards" a current Apple executive told the newspaper under condition of anonymity. "And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."


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