February 14, 2012

Apple and Labor Concerns

Is this big brand exploiting workers?

Gary: You have all heard of Apple and probably even own an Apple product. It is a well-known, well-liked company. In fact, according to a poll released yesterday, Apple now has the best corporate reputation in the world, moving past Google. But Apple’s shiny image may be tarnished a bit because of reports about how all those shiny products are made.

Just try to imagine 37 million iPhones. That is how many Apple sold in just the last three months of 2011. The world loves Apple. But have you ever wondered where all the technology actually comes from? Most Apple products are made in factories in China. There is a big one owned by the company Foxconn. Foxconn doesn’t just make iPhones, it produces 50% of all the electronics in the world.

Mike Daisey: Our devices are so beautiful, especially the Apple devices. They’re so gorgeous-looking that it seems as though they were made by a machine. But the reality is they’re assembled by hand, like thousands of people work with their fingers putting together the tiny components. So much of our world is actually handmade, even though it looks so modern. It’s built on the bones of this labor. And we need to actually understand that.

Gary: Mike Daisey decided to look into Apple’s working conditions after seeing some photos taken by workers from inside the Chinese factory. He says companies like Apple just are not doing enough to protect their workers.

At the Foxconn plant in China, which employs about 400,000 people, Daisey discovered some employees couldn’t take the pressure.

Daisey: Well, while I was there, I was there in May and June of 2010, that’s really at the peak of when the suicides were happening with kind of terrible regularity where week after week, workers would go up onto the roofs of these buildings and throw themselves off the buildings.

Gary: A series of suicides that got so bad, the factory installed nets around the buildings to prevent people from jumping to their deaths.

“From the spate of suicides at Foxconn, we began to question maybe the harsh management methods drive the workers to commit suicide.”

Debby chan works with SACOM, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior. It is a group trying to improve working conditions.

According to SACOM, at least eighteen Foxconn workers committed suicide in 2010 and more tried.

Debby Chan: We began to interview the workers, and then many of them told us they have work pressure. If they make some mistake they would be punished.

Gary: Before his death, Steve Jobs was asked about the troubling allegations against Foxconn.

Steve Jobs: We’re all over this. Foxconn is not a sweatshop. I mean, you go to this place, and it’s a factory. But, my gosh, I mean, they got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools. And I mean, it’s a — for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.

Gary: But if it is so nice, why so many suicides? Daisey says it is the high pressure to produce products and keep up with the global demand for must-have technology like the iPhone.

Foxconn insists that the suicide rate at its plants in China is actually lower than the national average.

Apple recently released a report containing working condition rules for the factories it hires to make Apple products. Under those rules, staff can only work up to 60 hours a week. But in that same report, Apple says fewer than half of its suppliers actually follow this rule.

Not long ago, the New York Times investigated some of the alleged problems at the factories that produce Apple products and other electronics. The paper’s report set off a reaction at Apple stores around the globe. Last week some Apple employees walked out in protest. And after the article, in an email to his staff: ’Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us,’ he said. ‘We are attacking problems aggressively. It would be easy to look for problems in fewer places and report prettier results, but those would not be the actions of a leader.’

And it is because Apple calls itself a leader in the industry that Daisey says they are getting singled out, even though many other tech companies rely on these factories.

Daisey: Apple has said for decades that it wants to be a leader. I think far from Apple, you know, sort of complaining that people have expectations of them, I think they should be delighted that people actually expect them to lead and to rally the rest of the industry.

Gary: Yesterday, Apple announced that its suppliers have now agreed to let an independent labor group inspect their operations. That group will interview employees about working and living conditions, and inspect the factories and places where they live.


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