Apple CEO Promises Progress In Worker Conditions

Posted by · February 14, 2012 5:01 pm

Tim Cook, Apple COO, in january 2009, after Ma...

“Apple takes working conditions very seriously.” Apple CEO Tim Cook wasted no time addressing the issue on everyone’s mind as he took the stage for his keynote presentation at Tuesday’s Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference. Overshadowing the anticipation of a new iPad likely to debut at an Apple event scheduled for early March is a vast, dark cloud that has proceeded to settle above the company over the past month.

“We take the conditions of workers very seriously. I worked in factories. I worked at a paper mill. We understand working conditions at a very granular level,” Cook continued. “I realize that the supply chain is very complex, and the issues surrounding it are very complex. But we believe that every worker has the right to a safe working environment where workers can earn a fair wage.”

And then, he said it: “Apple suppliers must live up to this in order to do business with Apple.”

Standing before an audience at an event sponsored by one of the biggest names on Wall Street, the Apple CEO summoned the courage to declare that the well-being of workers would no longer take a back seat to profits and share prices.

Cook’s ultimatum comes a day after the company announced that the Fair Labor Association began its independent audit of the highly scrutinized Foxconn facility in China. After the company published its “Apple Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report” last month, Apple became the first technology company to become a participating member in the FLA, announcing that the association would be conducting its own investigation of the company’s supply chain facilities. The results of the audits will be published on the www.fairlabor.org in early March.

The Apple CEO also used his keynote to highlight the primary component of this new era for the company—education.

“We provide free classes at many locations in our supply chain, and partner with colleges to provide courses,” Cook explained. “More than 60,000 employees have attended these classes. It would be a campus population larger than Arizona State, which is the largest state campus in the United States.”

Most likely referring to the classes offered through Apple University, Cook suggested that these classes would provide a “powerful stepping stone” for workers looking to improve themselves both personally and professionally. “We believe that education is the great equalizer.”

Clearly, though, it is going to take more than an educational effort to improve lives of workers who are subjected to work conditions unimaginable to most of the people who purchase Apple computers and devices. After all, the problems occurring at Foxconn and other Apple-contracted facilities are not the result of some deficiency in worker education. Therefore, the pittance in wages which workers receive, the lack of safety, and the generally oppressive culture which pervades these suppliers and manufacturers can hardly be expected to be rectified through education alone.

In other words, it’s difficult to see how an expansion of Apple University is going to address the problem of child labor—which Cook himself called “abhorrent” during his keynote—or employees committing suicide by jumping off of factory buildings—which Foxconn addressed by installing anti-suicide nets.

If Tim Cook wants to see real improvement for his workers, he’s going to need to get tougher.

While it certainly took bravery to call out suppliers in front of the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference, the company now must prove that it is sincere. When the results of the FLA inspections are published, facilities need to be given clear deadlines by which they must either improve their labor practices or lose Apple’s business. If Cook truly wants to make this his mark on Apple history—and I sincerely believe that he does—there need to be sharp teeth behind his poignant words.

Otherwise, nothing will ultimately change. Suppliers will have little incentive to change unless palpable pressure is applied. Workers will continue—under abhorrent work conditions—to assemble products that they will never be able to afford for themselves unless their dignity and worth as human beings is fully recognized and protected. A CEO with a historic opportunity for change will ultimately fade away beneath the legacy of his predecessor unless he summons all that is at his disposal to do what is right by those who literally create his company’s wealth.

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  • defecta

    Its well withing the realms of possibility for Apple to build/buy their own facilities where they would have ultimate control over every stage of production. What holes can people poke in that idea?

    • Personally, I’m right there with you, Andrew. The ultimate means of accountability with respect this type of production is for Apple to bring manufacturing and assembly under their ultimate control. If Apple is serious about improving work conditions for the people that make their products, the best way to do so is to eliminate the barrier that many companies who outsource production use as a means of insulating themselves from criticism harsh conditions that workers endure.