The “New” Apple Labor Scandal. Let the Hand Wringing Begin.

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Notice my use of sneer quotes (proper double ones — suck on that, AP) to suggest that this latest Apple scandal involving labor conditions in supplier factories is not at all news. Nevertheless, you might have noticed a wave of commentary over the past week or so devoted to Apple and its behemoth supplier Foxconn, which employs 727 million laborers in Guangdong Province alone (that’s a very rough estimate).

Why so much attention? Has anything happened? Actually, no. However, there has been some excellent reporting on the subject by David Barboza et al at the New York Times, which has published a series of articles (here’s a gateway link) about the plight of workers in these factories. I’d like to say at the outset of this post (before the criticism starts) that the reporting by the folks at the NYT has been top notch, balanced, and a welcome source of information. Kudos to all involved.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s also point out some of the more ridiculous aspects of this renewed debate, starting with CNN and its headline:

Apple in China: The New York Times goes for the Pulitzer

I sincerely hope that this was merely an expression of goodwill on behalf of CNN and not a serious prediction. As I said above, the Times’ reporting has been excellent, but talk of a Pulitzer is really misplaced.

I’m no expert of Pulitzer criteria, but I would hope that for a series to win, it should at least be original. And as much as I like what the Times is doing, I cannot in good conscience say that they are breaking any new ground here.

It seems that the media, not to mention the consumers of media, have very short attention spans. Have we really forgotten about all the scandals and stories that have originated from the same Foxconn factories that are now the subject of this “new” reporting?

This related CNET story lays out the problem, at least in part:

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 Lifehighlighted 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.

As a criticism of Apple, that’s certainly spot on. But it also reminds us that the latest exposé is more of an update than a news event. Ironically, though, the CNET article fails to go back far enough. Have we already forgotten the lurid details of the string of worker suicides that plagued Foxconn almost two years ago? I wrote about it back in April of 2010.

The labor conditions at Foxconn is far from a new story, and I therefore find the hang wringing and energetic scorn heaped on Apple slightly odd. More ridiculous still is a call for a boycott of Apple’s products due to these working conditions.

Please. Not only does this totally ignore the fact that other multinational electronics companies also use Foxconn to source products, but it also lets all other firms, domestic and foreign, in the tech sector or otherwise, off the hook.

But even worse, what have these boycott supporters been doing over the past couple of years? Perhaps some of the organizers have been hard at work, but for the rank and file of outraged consumers now willing to forego that new iPad, where were you when Foxconn workers were plunging to their deaths in 2010? If you didn’t catch that news, then let’s be honest, at the end of the day, you don’t really care that much about the plight of these people.

Between Apple and Foxconn (and the weak audit policy that CEO Tim Cook has tried to defend), there is much to criticize and plenty of blame to go around. But the breathless excitement and outrage over a “new” cause is ridiculous and, if anything, makes newly-converted activists look out of touch.

12 responses on “The “New” Apple Labor Scandal. Let the Hand Wringing Begin.

  1. ecodelta

    More than 2 years ago there was an article in “Der Spiegel” where Mrs Merkel proposed to tax import of products from countries which did not respect basic workers/peoples rights, this includes companies that manufacture/assemble their products in those countries.

    I think it is about time!

  2. pug_ster

    I am not surprised that Tim Cook made that sentiment. As the COO for the past few years, he basically created this WalMart of manufacturing in China for their products where Apple can dictate the terms of what he thinks is a fair price to pay and can micromanage how the product can be produced. Now he is defending his practice if how he squeezed every penny of profit margin for Apple.

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-31322_3-57367594-256/dear-apple-do-something-about-chinese-working-conditions/

    While HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, and others also use Foxconn for their ‘slave labor’ manufacturing, I agree with Apple is the biggest offender and should lead the way for better working conditions in Foxconn factories. I doubt that Apple would do that though.

  3. areyouserious

    Uh….

    “…and its behemoth supplier Foxconn, which employs 727 million laborers in Guangdong Province alone (that’s a very rough estimate).”

    Typo…need to fix it…Business Insider is running this article and everyone is tearing it apart because of the “727 million laborers.”

      1. S.K. Cheung

        Is there no one left who can detect, appreciate, and enjoy a little sarcasm anymore these days? Even when it comes with disclaimers like “a very rough estimate”? It’s as though people need flashing lights, wailing sirens, and coloured fonts to warn them about impending sarcasm just so they don’t get their little heads confused.

  4. S.K. Cheung

    Like Stan says, hardly a new story. But it’s FoxConn’s factory, not Apple’s. So it’s FoxConn’s responsibilty, first and foremost, to fix the labour abuse problem, since they are the ones abusing their workers. But Apple does play an abetting role, just like any other purchaser of FoxConn products.

  5. D

    It is proof of 2 things:
    1) The major media/news outlets have far fewer business reporters in China than they really should have. If they had more reporters, those reporters would remember the initial “big story” of Apple and Foxconn from 2006 ( see http://www.chinatechnews.com/2006/06/19/3920-newspaper-accuses-apple-computer-of-rotten-china-labor-practices and http://www.chinatechnews.com/2006/06/19/3909-hyperbolic-apple-ipod-factory-woes )

    2) Sad stories of Apple and Foxconn and China are more recyclable than the iphones they are read on ( see http://blogs.cio.com/smartphones/16573/apple-iphone%E2%80%99s-big-recycling-mess )

  6. LOLZ

    NYT is reacting to Apple’s recent earning statement which “blasted Wall Street expectations”. The pressure should be on FoxConn but since it is not a US company American won’t care.

    On the other hand, if people actually cared about how a product is made Nike would have gone out of business a while ago, and the diamond market would have crashed.

  7. allroads

    I wonder what the reaction of Apple investors would be if Foxconn (or Wintek) were shut down by the government for environmental/ labor conditions.

    Would they ask Tim Cook why he was so passive on this issues?
    would the ask why Tim Cook failed to assess the risks and take necessary actions, regardless of the “morality of supplier compliance.

    The fact is, Foxconn aside, over 50% of Apple’s suppliers ARE NOT COMPLIANT to Chinese laws, and while everyone is focused on Foxconn’s use of overtime and child labor, few are focused on teh two factory explosions, the nHexane exposed, or the 30+ suppliers that IPE profiled for their environmental failures.

    Those are the issues that I am sure Beijing is looking into now, and while the fanboys may think the Apple brand itself is too strong, I would argue that only makes it an easier target. the electronics industry is a mess, and what better way to clean things up then to shut down a couple key suppliers.

    R