Beyond Foxconn: A Look Inside the Apple Labor Complex

Posted by · July 11, 2012 2:04 pm

English: Prisoners at forced labor building ai...Apple under CEO Tim Cook has been nothing if not unpredictable—or perhaps just less transparent than I originally thought. After singing Cook’s praises for ushering in what I myself coined “Apple’s New Era of Transparency” and cheering loudly as Apple became the first tech company to become a participating member of the Fair Labor Association, I soon became aware of the lack of teeth behind Apple’s once-bone-chilling bark for labor justice. Following the FLA’s publication of its “Foxconn Investigation Report”—which simply highlighted the numerous “gaps between desired and actual performance” we already knew existed—Apple’s originally proactive posture toward its labor problem at Foxconn was replaced with what instead appeared to be little more than a massive PR push.

Soon thereafter, the issue faded from the headlines almost completely. That is, until a new report from labor watchdog China Labor Watch revealed that Foxconn is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the exploited assembly line workers who manufacture and assemble our favorite Apple devices.

Writing for In These Times labor blog “Working In These Times,” Michelle Chen lays out the report’s disturbing findings:

  • Employers wring every last drop of labor from workers, resulting in “excessive overtime” of roughly 100 to 130 hours per month, and up to 150 to 180 hours per month during “peak production.” On paper, there’s a legal limit in China of 36 overtime hours per month.
  • The overall basic wage is so low, compared to the local cost of living, workers have no choice but to work more hours than the legal limit, sometimes 11 hours per day, seven days a week, essentially standing in one place all day except for two short meal breaks. Sometimes bosses scrimp by offering relatively small “bonuses” in lieu of the legal overtime rate.
  • Workers reported “hazardous working environments,” such as metal dust filling the air at one facility.
  • In some cases, employers failed to provide legally mandated social and work-injury insurance.

Despite assurances that “Apple takes working conditions very seriously” and demands that suppliers uphold the right of every worker “to a safe working environment where workers can earn a safe wage,” Apple appears to have done very little to live up to this standard. In fact, the CLW report gives reason to believe that Apple has instead chosen to ignore certain labor practices that would make the results of its labor monitoring even more dismal.

“One of the key revelations of the CLW report is that it appears that some supplier companies have ample leeway to hide their labor practices by relying heavily on ‘dispatch’ labor, which allows for short-term, minimally regulated work arrangements,” Chen continues. “According to the report, dispatched labor in China allows companies to prevent labor organizing, avoid having to provide severance pay to short-term workers, avoid overtime regulations and liability for worker injuries, and skirt requirements for paying social insurance for dispatched workers.”

This merely serves to underscore the aforementioned concern that real efforts by Apple to mitigate such blatant abuses in its supply chain have been lackluster at best, electing instead to invest the lion’s share of its time and resources into its disingenuous auditing system. From the CLW report:

Labor dispatching demands special attention because Apple does not address it in its Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports…If Apple were to take the problem into account, the number of supplier factories that meet Apple’s standards would fall considerably.

To be sure, Apple has chosen the path of least resistance and, by default, lowest cost. By maintaining the appearance of increased diligence without actually addressing the problems in its supply chain, the company has found a way to get the best of both worlds.

On one hand, it appeases what I like to call headline activists. These are the people who only get behind a cause because it’s popular, and as soon as it vanishes from the headlines, so do their efforts. Unfortunately, most causes need the momentum generated by headline activists in order to have a lasting effect. Otherwise, as demonstrated by the present situation, the parties targeted by such causes only do what is necessary to appease this group.

Of course, there’s much to be gained from this strategy. By appeasing the ill-informed mob, companies like Apple are able expend minimal effort at little cost to fabricate the illusion of progress and in the process, turn would-be protesters into loyal customers.

In addition to the financial gains made possible by disingenuous buzzword campaigns focusing on “corporate social responsibility,” the other win for Apple is in costs savings. To address the root problem in its production chain would mean increased labor costs, much of which would likely be passed on to the consumer. And as a result, some consumers might consider a less expensive alternative made by one of its competitors—many of which also abuse the minimally regulated, easily exploited Chinese labor system.

Again, this leaves Apple with a “difficult” decision. Will the company take the bold yet potentially lonely steps necessary to set a humane labor standard for the entire technology sector? Or will Apple’s portrayal of itself as valiant reformer remain about as sincere as the headline activist, who isn’t so much concerned with ending gross injustice as s/he is with eliminating the guilt that knowing about it creates?

For more on Foxconn and Apple’s larger labor problem…

  • larry towers

    We need a worldwide minimum wage standard based upon some local reference, i.e. price of local housing food etc.