Shiny Surface of a Rotten Apple?

When you’re in Strategic Communication you cannot but admire Apple. The myth, the brand, the company seems to defy every rule in the book. The company is totally intransparent in its communication. It doesn’t do Corporate Social Responsibility. It innovates but at the same time stifles innovation by showering competitors with lawsuits. It squeezes suppliers in a way that IKEA couldn’t get away with. But everybody loves Apple.

Or could it be that we simply love our iPhones, iPads, iMacs and don’t want to know why expensive phones aren’t even more expensive?

Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist to whom I always turn for clever quotes, once wrote that the rules in the books exist for the genius to ridicule. That is certainly true for Apple, the late Steve Jobs and the Public Relations-book. Apple’s greatest invention might well be the milky-white-and-silver non-stick super-teflon brand coating. Neither dirt nor blood seems to stick with Apple.

But the recent riot in the factory of Foxconn (or Hon Hai) once again raises the question whether the apple is rotten under the shiny surface. Foxconn is the Chinese company that actually builds the new iPhone 5. On Monday, production in its 79,000-worker-megaplant in Taiyuan came to a halt. Wall Street held its breath. Production was resumed after riot police moved in and broke up the protest which is said to have comprised 2,000 workers. You can read about the event as it was reported here:

C’Net: Apple supplier Foxconn confirms worker riot at Taiyuan factory.


Taking Aim at Apple

In the course of 2012, Apple has increasingly been media-targeted for its not-so-uncommon-practice of outsourcing production to what can only be described as high-tech sweatshops. The New York Times started off in January, 2012:

New York Times: In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.

In the wake of the recent riot, C’Net published a report which tells the story of human misery behind the milky-white-and-silver high-tech façade: subsistence wages, endless hours of work, no health or safety plans, abuse, suicide and riots.

C’Net: Riots, suicides, and other issues in Foxconn’s iPhone factories.

Apple thinks different, of course. The company argues, not entirely unreasonably, that they are not directly responsible for the working conditions at their contractors’ factories, and that they have taken measures. Apple claims the measures have been largely successful, although they admit that Foxconn is far from perfect when measured against Western standards. Critics dispute that anything of relevance has been done. After interviewing 60 workers at Foxconn factories, SACOM, a Hong Kong-based watchdog organization, describes the situation of workers as follows:

“When the peak season comes, they are tied to the production lines with just one day off in 13 working days, or no rest day at all in a month, all to cope with the public demand for the new Apple products,” the report says. “It is sad to say that to some extent, workers also yearn for the peak season because their base pay is insufficient to meet their basic needs, especially for those who have to support their dependents.” (cited from the C’Net article above)

Well, that is Foxconn. Not Apple. However, even the Financial Times – not the world’s most worker-friendly newspaper – argues that Apple must be held indirectly responsible because of the squeeze it exerts on manufacturers. And it doesn’t help that Apple isn’t the only rotten piece of fruit: which reminds me of the fact that I own two computers manufactured by HP and I’m actually writing this on a third.

Foxconn survives on thin slices of Apple – FT

The Big Picture

For the big picture it’s sometimes good to turn to IndyMedia. Walden Bello, one of the World’s leading alter-globalization activists, pointed to the “Apple-China-Connection” earlier this year in connection with the New York Times’ revelations. You can read the full article here. Bello, professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines, outlines why the Taiyuan riot isn’t surprising and why the Western cries for human rights in China are hypocritical.

“Part of the reason South China retains its primacy as an investment site is that Chinese suppliers, with subsidies from the state, have established an unbeatable supply chain of contiguous factories, radically bringing down transport costs, enabling rapid assembly of an iPad or iPhone, and thus satisfying customers in a highly competitive market in record time. (…) Mastery of the economics of the supply chain is, however, only one of the reasons Jobs and Apple favored China. The central reason continued to be cheap labor that is disciplined by the state. What emerges in the Times account about Apple’s practices is that, despite its protestations about being a socially responsible firm, Apple bargains hard, allowing its contractors “only the slimmest of profits.” Thus, “suppliers often try to cut corners, replace expensive chemicals with less costly alternatives, or push their employees to work faster and longer. “The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,” said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. “And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.” Not surprisingly, a number of Apple suppliers have been plagued with accidents, including explosions, since, as one former Apple executive put it, “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.” The consequences of severe cost-cutting have not only been accidents but also protests by workers. Some of them took the tragic route of suicide, such as those that occurred in 2009 and 2010 at Foxconn, a notorious, gigantic corporate contractor, while others resorted to spontaneous labor actions that were put down forcefully by management and the state.


1 comment
  1. InTheLoop said:

    Since we already have the claim “No animals were harmed during production”, it might be only a matter of time until we will find a smiley on our smartphones, clothes and cars, informing us that no worker suffered under bad working conditions while manufacturing my product. Thank God! And with a sigh we can take our iPhone in our hands and let the world know that once again, everybody is allowed to love Apple!

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