Mar 1 2012

Letting Apple Off the Hook for Labor Abuses

Blaming consumers for not knowing what media have barely covered


“The iEconomy,” a New York Times series “examining challenges posed by increasingly globalized high-tech industries,” provides Exhibit A on how even the best attempts by corporate media to dig into international labor rights fall short.

With three bylined reporters and nine months of work (Economix, 1/25/12), the first two pieces of the series provided perhaps the most in-depth look at the production of Apple products that a corporate outlet has ever published. Despite all the resources it had expended and the abuses it had documented, the Times refused to pin the responsibility on Apple.

The first article (1/22/12), “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” made the case that globalization has essentially forced Apple to make its products almost entirely overseas. Largely sourced to anonymous current or former Apple employees, the piece gave an insider look at the supply chain and decisions about outsourcing that emphasized it’s not just about costs and profit:

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

Note the word “flexibility,” a word repeated multiple times in the article. What flexibility means in this context is being able to hire and fire thousands of people at once, which, since companies don’t have to keep paying workers during slow times or provide severance, makes labor cheaper—exactly what the Times said isn’t going on here. It also means a lack of workplace regulations and enforcement, such that when Apple needs something fast, the factory foreman can drag thousands of employees out of their beds in company dorms to get back on the line—a story told to the Times by an anonymous former Apple executive, who proudly describes that “speed and flexibility” as “breathtaking.”

The second article (1/26/12), “In China, the Human Costs That Are Built Into an iPad,” compiled a damning list of those “human costs” of the Apple supply chain in China: child labor, excessive overtime, wage withholding, hazardous work conditions leading to death and injury, and a string of worker suicides. Notably, the piece quoted critics who cited Apple’s emphasis on profits that squeeze suppliers, its lack of transparency and its failure to rigorously enforce its own standards.

But witness the piece’s conclusion:

People like Ms. [Heather] White of Harvard [and a former member of the Monitoring International Labor Standards committee at the National Academy of Sciences] say that until consumers demand better conditions in overseas factories—as they did for companies like Nike and Gap, which today have overhauled conditions among suppliers—or regulators act, there is little impetus for radical change. Some Apple insiders agree.

“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,” said a current Apple executive.

“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

In other words, both pieces conclude that none of this is really Apple’s fault. And what’s more, all would be well if consumers would just push Apple to change—like they did Nike and Gap—instead of going gaga over each new release of an Apple product.

Times reporter Keith Bradsher repeated that message to New York public radio’s Brian Lehrer (WNYC, 1/27/12): “The working conditions are not what Americans would accept at all. And yet Americans implicitly accept them by buying the products they produce.”

It’s a curious accusation. How can people accept—implicitly or explicitly—labor abuses that they’re scarcely even aware of? In the year preceding publication of the first “iEconomy” piece, the Times published 385 articles about Apple. In that coverage, you’ll find the word “genius” more often (19 times) than you’ll find the word “labor” (12). And of those pieces that do mention labor, only nine—2 percent of all articles about Apple—are actually about labor abuses. Just the week before, the Times had published a “factcheck” about Apple outsourcing that put the blame squarely on a lack of educated Americans. (See sidebar.)

Meanwhile, many articles quite directly push Apple products on readers: One Times reporter (12/7/11) admonished that one is “never fully dressed without a smartphone. In 2011, a smartphone is no longer a newfangled doodad—it’s table stakes for the modern world. There are iPhone 4s for $99 now, and iPhone 3GSs are free with a contract, so there really are no excuses.” An earlier review (10/12/11) was headlined “New iPhone Conceals Sheer Magic.”

Who is it, again, that’s implicitly accepting the working conditions for people who make our Apple products?

The problem becomes even more evident when you add the uncomfortable fact that Nike and Gap are not paragons of labor rights abroad, as the Times would have readers believe—and would be forced to acknowledge if it actually kept up its reporting on such things.

Just over a year ago, a fire in an apparel factory in Bangladesh killed at least 27 workers and injured around 100. Some jumped to their deaths from the tenth floor, tragically reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York 100 years earlier that helped drive forward the movement for collective bargaining and workers’ rights in this country. The Times (12/14/10) noted the incident, but didn’t report who the factory was producing clothing for. It was Gap (Guardian, 12/14/10).

As for Nike, high-profile activism, largely student-led, forced Nike to make public gestures toward labor rights more than a decade ago—the company helped form the Fair Labor Association, a corporate-supported monitoring group that allows companies like Nike to claim their products are sweatshop-free. This same group is now making Apple its first technology company member.

Yet Nike factories continue to be plagued by labor abuses. In 2009, two Nike factories in Honduras abruptly closed and laid off 1,700 employees after workers started organizing unions. The laid-off workers were not paid the severance or health benefits they were legally owed; they also complained of having regularly worked unpaid overtime (Labor Notes, 4/29/10). After a long student-led campaign that eventually resulted in several universities boycotting the company, Nike agreed to pay the severance.

So, “radical change”? Not exactly. And the pressure on Nike and Gap has been remarkably strong and well-organized, by groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

As long as labor abuses remain in far-off places rarely subject to scrutiny by the likes of the New York Times, Nike, Gap and Apple—and all the other multinational corporations whose names could easily substitute for them—will remain more swayed by stockholders pushing for maximized profits than consumers who want the workers who make their shoes, clothes and iPods treated justly.


SIDEBAR: NYT’s Apple Debate Factcheck, Without Facts

At the January 19 Republican debate, CNN host John King asked the candidates how they would convince a corporation like Apple, which relies on half a million workers in China but has less than 50,000 employees in the United States, to employ more workers in its home country.

The candidates gave the answers you might expect—Rick Santorum advocated for cutting the corporate tax rate to zero, Ron Paul thought the situation might be partly due to “the union problem.”

It’s the kind of exchange that’s rather difficult to factcheck; it’s a political argument more than anything else. But the New York Times (2/20/12) thought the factual answer could be found in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where the late Apple CEO explained his decision to manufacture in China. Reporter Binyamin Appelbaum reported:

At a dinner party in Silicon Valley, Mr. Jobs told the president that the company needed 30,000 engineers to support those factory workers.“You can’t find that many in America to hire,” Mr. Jobs said.Mr. Isaacson wrote: “These factory engineers did not have to be PhDs or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges or trade schools could train them.”

“If you could educate these engineers,” Mr. Jobs said, “we could move more manufacturing plants here.”

Not taxes. Not regulation. Education.

The justification that a CEO uses to take advantage of much cheaper labor available in China is naturally going to sound something like this. It’s highly unlikely that Apple couldn’t find thousands of community college-trained workers in the United States.

Even in Jobs’ biography you could find more plausible explanations; in its review of the book, the Huffington Post (10/20/11) noted that “Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where ‘regulations and unnecessary costs’ make it difficult for them.”

A more elucidating factcheck might have been informed by the Times’ arts section, which featured a review (10/18/11) of Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue about his investigation of working conditions at Apple’s main plant in China:

While the official Chinese workday is eight hours, the norm at Foxconn is more like 12 and even longer when the introduction of a product is at hand. One worker died after a 34-hour shift. Some of the workers he meets are as young as 13, and because of the repetitive nature of the labor, their hands often become deformed and useless within a decade, rendering them unemployable.

If you really want to factcheck claims about Apple’s motivations, maybe Steve Jobs shouldn’t be your only source.


-Peter Hart


Editor’s Note: On March 16, 2012, the public radio show Marketplace exposed major elements of Mike Daisey’s account of his investigation of the Foxconn manufacturing plant to be fabricated and/or conflated, and This American Life retracted its report that featured Daisey as its main source. The descriptions of meeting with underaged workers and a worker with a disabled hand appear to be among the parts of his story that Daisey made up.