Should consumers boycott Apple?
Apple's profits may have soared last quarter, with revenue up 74% (to $46.3 billion), but I wonder how celebratory they feel in Cupertino as reports emerge about the company's business practices, specifically how it keeps production costs low so that it can "make a 60%, 70% margin per phone" sold?
In the last few days, the New York Times has published bombshell reports ("How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work," "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad") that expose the appalling working conditions at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, where Apple's products are made. Here's an excerpt describing the troubling environment:
[T]he workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious -- sometimes deadly -- safety problems.
Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.
More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers' disregard for workers' health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.
It should be noted:
--Apple is not alone among electronic companies employing Foxconn and other such plants.
--Apple has responded to scrutiny over workplace conditions by disclosing names of suppliers and manufacturing partners.
--If the New York Times' anonymous sources are to be trusted, Apple execs don't seem to care how the work gets done so long as it's fast and cheap. Here are two unabashed (and nameless) quotes from the New York Times stories:
"The speed and flexibility is breathtaking," the executive said. "There's no American plant that can match that." […]
"We shouldn't be criticized for using Chinese workers," a current Apple executive said. "The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need."
They should have just come out and said they'd rather not abide by U.S. regulations that protect worker rights -- regulations that would slow down productivity and increase costs. ("By some estimates, each iPhone includes $190 in hardware costs, $10 in Chinese labor," Scott Tong said on Wednesday's "Marketplace.")
Earlier this month "This American Life" dedicated an entire episode to the issue of human rights abuses taking place at Foxconn. On the program, Mike Daisey performed from his one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he shares his experience from Shenzhen, where he went with the intention of learning about the people who made his beloved Apple products. Here's an excerpt of his heartbreaking findings:
While I'm in-country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift. I wish I could say that's exceptional, but it's happened before. I only mention it because it actually happened while I was there.
And I go to the dormitories. I'm a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They're stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.
There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn't there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don't have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They're making your crap that way today.
When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don't we? "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch." But that's not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.
Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.
Beyond the working conditions, Daisey also sheds light on an environment in which people live in fear and are eventually disposable. "And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined," he says. "And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away." And there's no one to protect workers, he goes on, in this "fascist country run by thugs."
"It's barbaric," the Daily Beast's Dan Lyons says bluntly. And it's up to us, the consumers, to do something about it rather than turn a blind eye. He writes:
As the Times article points out, this isn't just Apple. It's every company. It's every product we use. It's our entire way of life, built on the backs of people who are being treated in ways that we would not allow ourselves or our countrymen to be treated.
Ultimately the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies -- but with us, the consumers.
And ultimately we are the ones who must demand change.
--Alexandra Le Tellier
Photo: A representative from Foxconn Technology Group speaks to applicants outside the computer component maker's plant in Shenzhen last year. Credit: Associated Press