Apple and the Workplace

 Not only does Apple make great products. It also making great waves in the Chinese labor market.

 After receiving great criticism for the working conditions under which its iPhones and iPads were assembled, Apple and Foxconn, the company in China which supplies about 50 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, have agreed to improve working conditions, shorten working hours, upgrade workers’ housing and pay workers for overtime.

 This comes in response to an investigation by the independent Fair Labor Association, which uncovered multiple and serious violations. The move by Apple and Foxconn is heartening in its swiftness and significance.

 Labor and human rights violations in developing countries are often defended on the basis of cultural relativism. Who are we in developed countries, the argument runs, to impose our values on others?

 Apple answers this question: if you want to be part of the world economy, then you need to be—and will be—held to a standard acceptable to the world-wide community. Cultural differences are fine when it comes to whether to use chopsticks or forks, but it isn’t so fine when it comes to how you treat people.

 The Apple/Foxconn decision is expected to have a significant ripple effect. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Amazon, Nokia and Motorola all contract with Foxconn. These companies will likely respond by raising the standard of living for thousands of Chinese. Unlike previous years in which moving companies abroad meant a race to the bottom by finding the cheapest labor, the tide in now flowing in the other direction.

Living wages and conditions are improving because of the public outcry when the news broke about working conditions in the factories that assembled America’s electronic love objects. Consumer pressure brought Apple to its ethical senses.

 There are two lessons here: one is that labor conditions need to be understood as universal, not cultural. No one should be exploited. Everyone is entitled to the dignity of his or her labor.

The second lesson is that consumers have great power not only to induce companies to create the kind of products they want to buy but also to get businesses to do the right thing. Consumers have moral leverage with their buying power, if they choose to use it. Apple, the most world’s most valuable listed company, listened because the public was outraged by initial reports of workers committing suicide at Foxconn’s housing complex.

 So credit where credit is due. Hats off to Apple and Foxconn. But the spotlight shouldn’t be turned off. Let’s hope they follow through. And ten-gallon hats off to those who once they were aware of working conditions in China, forced the two giants to change course.

 This is but a first step in economic justice. “Until Apple shares a larger proportion of its profits with its supplier factories, workers will receive the same pittance for a salary while working around the clock,” says Li Qiang, the director of China Labor Watch. While this may seem like a radical proposal, it follows from a common practice applied to upper echelons.

Management gets wealthy not through wages but through stocks and such. There is no good moral reason to confine profit sharing to the highest paid employees.



2 thoughts on “Apple and the Workplace

  1. Apple was very aware of the dismal working conditions that had even cost Chinese workers their lives well before the Fair Labor Commission issued its findings. I was totally disheartened when allegedly progressive, rights-minded colleagues lining up to get Apple’s latest product even before Apple was cornered into making changes. The deification of Steve Jobs was further upsetting, even when the human rights abuses were known. I hardly give Apple credit for ceding to a wave of pressure. They would not have done so voluntarily, if profits were not being potentially threatened. I totally agree with you that Apple should now rethink whether billions in profits is just when its products are being made off of the backs of Chinese workers barely able to pay for basic necessities. Thanks for bringing attention to this issue!!!

  2. The exploitation by Apple in its Chinese plants raises many questions inherent in the process of globalization. First, with the extraordinary power of multinationals, “the tail” of private enterprise wags “the dog” of the sovereign state. In a just world governed by legal regimes, American law would reach beyond our boundaries to regulate standards and fair labor practices for American-based companies with plants and interests in foreign companies.

    In the absence of such laws, it is up to human rights organizations to keep the spotlight on exploitation and abuse with the hope of spearheading consumer boycotts to pressure the profiteers of overseas ventures abide by humane standards.

    One might want to look at an article by Deborah Spar, formerly of Harvard and now President of Barnard, published in Foreign Affairs defending globalization on the grounds that it raises living standards for those who can avail themselves of foreign enterprises, while turning the spotlight on them to flag abuse.

    Joe Chuman

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