Over the last several months, Apple Inc, one of the most prominent and profitable companies on the planet, has been subject to charges of gross labor violations in its production facilities in China. It is fair to say that these charges, initiated by labor rights specialists and students in Hong Kong and backed by international trade unions, have greatly disturbed a company whose primary qualities include microscopic attention to detail, almost pathological secrecy, along with an apparently flawless marketing strategy. The labor rights charges, as voiced by SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior) included: involuntary labor by up to 100,000 student “interns,” exposure to toxic chemicals and other explosive substances leading to several deaths, harsh management methods including semi-military boot camp-like training, excessive and forced overtime, a rash of worker suicides, and unrepresentative company unions.
Anyone familiar with industrial conditions in China will realize that these circumstances are unfortunately typical. That is not to excuse them; it does, however, suggest that any company wishing to improve the quality of life for its workers in China will have to make a serious break from the dominant industrial culture. Apple, apparently, had not sufficiently made that effort.
Like many other companies producing there, Apple has been monitoring its labor conditions for several years, particularly with its largest supplier, Foxconn, a Taiwan-based manufacturer with 1.2 million employees in China. (Foxconn is the largest private employer in China and produces electronic products for most of the major US, Japanese and European brands.) However, as the critics rightly point out, that monitoring has not yet led to improvements in the conditions they found. Apple’s internal monitoring reports indicate that they found plenty of problems, but that few real solutions had been reached. They also indicate that some problems, such as worker representation and grievance procedures, and the possible involuntary nature of student “internships” hadn’t been looked at at all, or insufficiently to see issues that critics had seen.
But when public criticism erupted, thanks to student activism in Hong Kong and, throughout the internet due to social media, Apple had no choice but to try to repair its image, and, possibly, its workers’ conditions, rapidly. Facing boycotts of Apple stores, demonstrations in many countries, and highly critical press reports, Apple decided in February to seek help from the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a Washington-based multi-stakeholder organization of global companies, universities and labor rights NGOs that has a large presence in China, primarily in the garment and footwear industries. The FLA is currently investigating problems at all the major facilities of Foxconn, the results of which it will submit within a few days to the Apple management, and then shortly publish together with a plan by Apple to remedy the problems found. The public report is due to be available on the FLA website (www.fairlabor.org) by mid-March.
One of the advantages of turning to the FLA is that its methodology focuses not so much on finding problems as finding at a deeper level why the problems are happening and working toward sustainable solutions that are not so likely to fade after public attention has wandered. It is a methodology that has evolved in the last several years, as it became clear that simple check-list monitoring in itself led to no lasting reforms. This effort with Apple will be a major test of this new methodology.
But that positive potential for sustainable change hasn’t happened yet. Nor has it even begun without criticism. Even before the FLA had started its investigation, which is to include direct interviews with 35,000 workers, SACOM charged that Apple was engaged in nothing but a PR stunt. The FLA was accused of being only a company front, because companies are involved in its governance and pay fees to the organization. (Parenthetically, whatever problems existed a decade ago as the FLA was getting started have long ago been resolved by transparency, separating fees from policy influence, secret and unannounced inspections and deepened interactions with local labor and activist organizations.)
The FLA verdict will be available to the public soon, as will Apple’s plan to remedy problems found. Both deserve to be given detailed scrutiny. But the problems that are reported will not be solved instantly or easily. They are too deeply rooted in an industrial system that has ignored or denied these conditions were problematic, in significantly inadequate management systems, and in the lack of worker controlled labor unions to give direct voice to workers’ concerns. If Apple is to truly reform its way of relating to its producers, it will require a multi-year effort on many fronts.
But if Apple succeeds in achieving satisfactory worker conditions and worker-management relations, it has the potential to set off a much-needed reform of conditions in China’s entire electronics industry. It’s that big.
It seems important to reflect a bit on why this problem has erupted, and why the initial responses have been so contentious. First, on Apple’s part, its wildly successful products and strictly controlled marketing strategy can generate a certain ethical blindness to problems that are beyond the vision of its public and a certain relaxed attitude toward correcting any problems found. At the same time, that attitude can engender much more intense criticism when these problems are exposed. It is not accidental that Apple alone has been attacked for problems that are equally shared by virtually every other electronic firm operating in China. Claims of excellence put a target on the back of the claimer.
Second, several missteps seem to have occurred in the FLA’s initial response to Apple’s request. Early discussions between FLA and the Hong Kong-based critics did not go well, as there did not seem to be a mutually shared trust about what the FLA would be doing, and initial comments by FLA’s CEO to the press suggested to critics that he had already exonerated Foxconn of any problems. (All he had indicated was that Foxconn’s factories were technically far better organized and more advanced than the facilities of the Chinese garment and footwear industry, where FLA had hitherto concentrated its work.) It may be that the opportunity to engage with a company the size and scale of Apple, and thereby to gain a foothold in the electronics industry, led to some lack of initial caution in addressing the press. Whatever Apple does attracts enormous attention, both positive and negative, and the FLA may not have been adequately prepared to be engaged with that level of attention.
Finally, efforts by the media to heighten focus on conflicts between groups and a certain laziness by reporters in exploring the current work of the FLA added to the controversy, without adding understanding of the complexities involved.
However, all the bumps and grinds of the initial phase of this effort primarily serve to heighten the importance of doing things right, and working in sufficient depth and persistence to bring about real change. Millions of workers stand to benefit if that happens.
Pharis Harvey is a board member of Media Voices for Children, and, until 2009 was also on the Board of Directors of the Fair Labor Association.