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  • What They Forget About Apple’s Factory Worker Problem

    January 31st, 2012

    So the headlines loom large and threatening in the U.S.’s newspaper of record, The New York Times. Workers at Apple’s contract factories, particularly those owned by Foxconn Technology of China, are little more than slaves existing in unsafe conditions. They may suffer injuries and possibly commit suicide because the are forced to work hard day in and day out with little rest or relaxation. Indeed, they have to live in dormitories, not apartments or regular homes.

    Now America’s image of the factory worker is cemented in the 1950s. People who worked in steel mills and auto plants were relatively comfortable citizens of the middle class. They were able to earn enough money to buy a modest home and, perhaps, even save a little to help send their kids of to college. That way, the next generation could use their minds instead of their hands to earn a paycheck. What’s more, two-income families weren’t always necessary to help cover the mortgage and pay for food. Extra income from a second job would help cover family vacations and luxuries, perhaps even a new car or TV set.

    That way of life is long ago and far away. The proverbial 40-hour work week is a forgotten dream in many countries, and it’s far worse for a the citizen of a third-world country. Getting a regular gig at a factory such as the ones run by Foxconn can help develop new skills, and ensure that workers and their families might have enough money to begin to improve their humble standards of living.

    Sure, we wouldn’t tolerate such sweat shop working conditions in the industrialized world, but China is moving fast and furious to raise everyone’s standard of living from near-squalor. At the same time companies are taking advantage of cheap labor to save production costs.

    Nowadays, these contract factories assemble most of the world’s supply of personal computers, tablets, smartphones, and loads of other products. Yes, every Apple product is designed in Cupertino, CA, but most are assembled in Asia for a whole lot less money. As a result, you pay less too, but it also means that the manufacturing base in many countries with more expensive labor is dying.

    However, Apple has a perfect right to assemble their gear wherever they get can the best prices and high production efficiency. But you have to be concerned when you read reports of worker mistreatment, and you wonder about the charges that Apple is turning a blind eye to such abuses.

    Well, in response to story in The New York Times detailing this sad state of affairs, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded quickly, claiming the company is very focused on worker safety, and will continue to do what’s necessary to improve the treatment of employees of Foxconn and other factories. In passing, I wonder if Steve Jobs would have responded near as quickly and forthrightly, though he also professed similar concerns.

    At the same time, the people who focus on Apple’s production worker situation shouldn’t forget that other companies assemble their gear at Foxconn, including HP. Sure, Apple may be Foxconn’s largest customer, but HP is a healthy number two. And just where do Dell and other companies go when they need to assemble such products as personal computers or printers?

    Now I don’t pretend to know the inner details of the worker situation at these plants. Even if they feel they are comfortable and relatively well off, at least compared to their former standard of living, nobody has the right to abuse them or overwork them. If that’s still happening, certainly Apple and other customers of these firms need to continue to properly deal with such abuses. Maybe it would serve the entire consumer electronics industry to set aside their competitive differences and agree not to deal with any factory that mistreats its employees. That will fix the problem but good.

    Of course, you wonder why the governments of China and other countries that allowed these factories to be built are tolerating such a tragic situation. Or maybe they are happy that their citizens are putting food on the table and paying taxes. I suppose one could suggest that the right officials in the right departments might be enriched from time to time with money from factory executives to look the other way. That wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, though I am maybe paying too much attention to movies about how officials behave in third-world countries, although payoffs are common all over the world.

    You could also suggest that maybe Apple should just call up Foxconn and say, “you’re fired,” but it’s not that easy. Apple has assembled a very sophisticated supply chain, using expensive custom tools with which to fabricate unibodies on MacBooks and the glass externals of iPhones. Switching production facilities under these circumstances wouldn’t be easy, and it would have to be done slowly and deliberately to avoid any production interruptions.

    At the same time, I hope that Cook is right that Apple won’t tolerate unsavory working conditions. Everyone who labors long days and nights to build your favorite electronic gadgets deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect and, of course, paid a decent wage.



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    11 Responses to “What They Forget About Apple’s Factory Worker Problem”

    1. Corporate dukes enjoying commanding views from their corporate castles can’t wait for the day when American workers would get paid as little as the workers in Han Hai/Foxconn so they can win bigger bonuses while workers get less pay and no benefits because, you know, they are just unwashed peasants, hence unprivileged.

      This is what President Bush meant by “…making America competitive.” And, to him, “America” meant gov. run by corporate dukes.

      PC-centric people hate that Apple did not die as, they likely feel, it should have according to all indications in the 1990s. Even worse, it is besting smart phone makers with outstanding devices, so they use this reason to henpeck at Apple for using Foxconn, not the following device manufacturers who also use it:

      Acer Inc. (Taiwan)
      Amazon.com (United States)
      Apple Inc. (United States)
      ASRock (Taiwan)
      Asus (Taiwan)
      Barnes & Noble (United States)
      Cisco (United States)
      Dell (United States)
      EVGA Corporation (United States)
      Hewlett-Packard (United States)
      Intel (United States)
      IBM (United States)
      Lenovo (China)
      Logitech (Switzerland)
      Microsoft (United States)
      MSI (Taiwan)
      Motorola (United States)
      Netgear (United States)
      Nintendo (Japan)
      Nokia (Finland)
      Panasonic (Japan)
      Philips (Netherlands)
      Samsung (South Korea)
      Sharp (Japan)
      Sony Ericsson (Japan/Sweden)
      Toshiba (Japan)
      Vizio (United States)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foxconn#Major_customers

    2. Scott Clausen says:

      I worked for a short while for a taiwan based company and had occasion to visit factories and discuss quality control issues. I saw some very poor conditions and some that weren’t bad at all.

      What I did not like was the duplicity of the operations. I would criticize their methods and show them improvements. The Chinese would nod and say yes and then totally ignore them. Those doing it were the Taiwanese owners and not the local Chinese. Also, they also told me they only needed to be 90-95% as good with the product quality to be successful.

      As Foxconn is the owner I believe they bear the brunt of the criticism and should make changes. Yes, Apple plays a part in the process but, based on my experience, while they may be assured of changes the changes may never happen. It’s all about profit on the part of Foxconn doing what they think it best and damn the consequences.

    3. Edward says:

      First article I’ve seen that actually mentions that the employees may be better off than they were before. Would be nice if someone went over there and actually got positive stories straight from the workers.

    4. Jake B says:

      Do you have a dream of great best-in-class electronic products being manufactured in the good old U.S. of A.? Once upon a time Apple did, too. They made their game-changing Macintosh here. And no doubt fervently believed all the “buy American” sentiment so many Americans espouse is genuine. But a funny thing — for all the talk, not only did the vast majority of Americans go for the cheaper foreign-made goods, but the American business media even loudly celebrated the entrepreneurial cleverness of the company that pioneered streamlined offshoring. Dell was the wave of the future, they said. No one else can compete. Until finally even Apple threw in the towel and moved their production oveseas.

      People can dream and are entitled to their opinions, even when what they claim to believe doesn’t jibe with their actions. As a publicly traded commercial enterprise Apple has an obligation to do what the numbers say makes sense, independent of sentiment. I believe as an American icon they should continue to be successful and show the way for American companies to compete effectively in a competitive world. That alone is enough of a contribution in a world of diminishing outlook. But if anyone is clever and unconventional enough to figure out how to manufacture competitively in the US, I’m a lot more confident that it will get figured out with Apple around than without.

    5. Pedant says:

      What I find laughable is that all these “Apple should pay more to the workers” don’t understand that Apple aren’t there handing out cash to the workers. They pay the factory owners, who are free to pass on as little or as much as they like to their workers.

      Foxconn apparently do pay more than other employers.

      However, why on earth do people think that any extra cash Apple provide will trickle down to the factory floor? Hell, it doesn’t work that way in the US, why would it work in China?

    6. ccllyyddee says:

      According to an interview with Steve Jobs that I watched, it is not the cost of the labor, but the capabilities of the US manufacturing sector that causes e-products to be manufactured overseas. According to Steve, by the time Apple could go through the local permitting process, the Chinese would have the building built and the machines in place. Then there is the problem of production engineers. Apparently our higher education institutions are teaching esthetics of engineering instead of mechanics, production, and efficiency. And then there is the problem of having a versatile labor force capable of operating new machinery every time there is a new model or product.

    7. Do You Feel Guilty for Buying Your iPhone? | PhD Pedia of CHINA says:

      […] What They Forget About Apple’s Factory Worker Problem: However, Apple has a perfect right to assemble their gear wherever they get can the best prices and high production efficiency. But you have to be concerned when you read reports of worker mistreatment, and you wonder about the charges that Apple is turning a blind eye to such abuses…At the same time, the people who focus on Apple’s production worker situation shouldn’t forget that other companies assemble their gear at Foxconn, including HP. Sure, Apple may be Foxconn’s largest customer, but HP is a healthy number two. And just where do Dell and other companies go when they need to assemble such products as personal computers or printers? […]

    8. Do You Feel Guilty for Buying Your iPhone? | ??? PhD Pedia says:

      […] What They Forget About Apple’s Factory Worker Problem: However, Apple has a perfect right to assemble their gear wherever they get can the best prices and high production efficiency. But you have to be concerned when you read reports of worker mistreatment, and you wonder about the charges that Apple is turning a blind eye to such abuses…At the same time, the people who focus on Apple’s production worker situation shouldn’t forget that other companies assemble their gear at Foxconn, including HP. Sure, Apple may be Foxconn’s largest customer, but HP is a healthy number two. And just where do Dell and other companies go when they need to assemble such products as personal computers or printers? […]

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