The independent news organization of Duke University

Poison Apple

In Shenzhen, a rash of employee suicides in 2010 raised questions about the tough work culture at Foxconn, the primary supplier of Apple’s iPhones and iPads. According to an article in The New York Times, 19-year-old Ma Xiangqian worked 11-hour shifts seven nights a week to create electronic parts and earned about $1 an hour. Xiangqian jumped to his death from his dormitory window early in January, the first of more than twelve suicides that year.

In response, Foxconn opened a 24-hour counseling hotline, hired psychologists, raised salaries and put up nets around buildings. Apple then commissioned a review by a team of suicide-prevention experts and commended Foxconn’s response, finding that it had “definitely saved lives.” On the surface at least, the problem was solved.

As the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer, Foxconn remains competitive with tough, cost-cutting policies like enforced silence on the assembly line and regimented bathroom breaks. Work blends into life, as employees share dormitories within the complex and on-site facilities like hospitals and banks reduce the need to leave.

Meanwhile, at a Wintek factory where iPhone touch screens are produced,137 workers became sick starting in 2009 from exposure to a chemical—n-hexane—used to wipe touch screen glass panels. Workers experienced symptoms like faintness, dizziness, numbness, swelling and intense pain.

More than a year later, Apple called this a “core violation” of worker safety, ordered the supplier company to stop using n-hexane and promised to monitor the health of the injured workers. But most of the workers never heard from Apple and were eventually made to accept cash settlements by Wintek to leave the factory.

These cases highlight the challenge in protecting the interests of workers when multinational companies like Apple and third-party suppliers quietly partner together.

Apple does not disclose its supplier base for competitive reasons, and in turn, Chinese companies like Foxconn guarantee secrecy about Apple products and plans. The lack of transparency makes it easier for companies at all levels to evade responsibility. China’s regulatory environment also allows factories to flout labor and environmental laws with its weak enforcement and paltry penalties for violations that are too low to incentivize compliance.

The crucial question is how to distribute social responsibility among Apple, lower-tier Chinese supplier companies and the Chinese government to most effectively protect workers at the bottom.

Apple claims to be one of the most socially responsible companies out there because it holds annual audits of factories according to its code of conduct. The number of facilities Apple visits has consistently increased over the past three years.

But Apple’s approach of trying to single-handedly clean up its supply chain places too much responsibility at the top. It requires very little cooperation with other stakeholders, such as a coalition of 34 Chinese environmental NGOs called the Green Choice Alliance.

In fact, the alliance has ranked Apple as one of the multinational companies that were least responsive to its communications. Apple is operating in countries like China and creating tangible effects on environment and human health. At the very least, the company should respond to the concerns of Chinese civil society and citizens.

Practically speaking, sharing the reporting and investigative responsibility down the tiers of a supply chain and also inviting public scrutiny would be a more effective system of detecting problems before they turn into catastrophes. To implement this system, companies should increase transparency at all levels, especially at the top, and enable the media and civil society to act as watchdogs.

Sure, there are competitive disadvantages for Apple to transparency, but other companies such as Nike and Adidas already disclose all of their suppliers. Corporate advantage shouldn’t take precedence over social responsibility.

By extension, what is the consumer’s role in pressuring brands like Apple to damage the environment or the health of factory workers when outsourcing to different countries? After buying an Apple product, most Apple consumers soon find themselves almost monogamously loyal to the brand. Ironically, I’m typing this on a MacBook while powering up my iPod on the side.

Using an Apple product is supposed to be progressive, for the modern bohemian bourgeoisie. And if using Apple doesn’t actively add to social good somehow, surely it wouldn’t detract from it. The image of Apple as a multinational corporation spewing pollution in the Chinese countryside and exploiting minimum-wage laborers just doesn’t fit with the moral and aesthetic ethos Apple presents.

Apple has taken some steps to fix the problems that are mentioned here, so I’m not saying we should all abandon our Apple products, which would be sad and painful for all parties involved. But as consumers, we have the right, responsibility and collective leverage to pressure companies to reduce their negative externalities in other countries.

And as humans, we all have a stake in doing so.

Jessica Kim is a Trinity junior studying abroad in Beijing. Her column runs every other Monday.

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