The battle to save Apple’s soul

foxconn workers protestHave just had time to take stock of all the crazy goings on with Apple and Foxconn last week and I think this story will run and run, much to Apple’s frustration, for a while to come yet.

I managed to track down Debby Chan, a project worker at non-profit organisation Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) for a fascinating chat which generated some pretty dynamite pieces of information.

Bear in mind the following are all allegations, some from chats Debby has had with Foxconn staff, so it’s best to remain sceptical, but still:

  • Local governments ‘repay’ Foxconn for choosing to locate factories in their area by helping to man them with vocational students. Apparently it doesn’t matter what the vocation is, they get shipped off anyway for a few months or more of misery which could mean them failing to graduate or having to drop out. This is basically forced labour.
  • High profile they may have been but the FLA inspections of Foxconn’s factories are flawed because the company has prepared for them by giving workers more breaks, and by hiding the underage workers away – so they pass inspection.
  • The FLA itself could be accused of favouring the interests of the big name companies like Apple which are members and sit on its board, making a mockery of these ‘independent’ inspections.

Now Foxconn has strenuously denied the allegations of underage workers and wages have been put up, while Apple CEO Tim Cook has made noises about micro-managing timesheets to make sure workers aren’t put under too much pressure.

But how much of this is just spin? Some people have suggested that this is Apple’s Nike moment and it’s important to remember that ultimately all a company wants to do is make money – sell products, maximise its profits and dominate the market. It’s capitalism, and it’s never been particularly pretty.

The only way of stopping these companies from doing what they want no matter how horrendous the human cost, is by helping their affluent, mostly white, middle class, western customers realise what’s going on.

So well done to Debby and the people at SACOM and their various partners for trying to bring these issues to light. It seems to be working, as witnessed by the inspections themselves, although as Chan explained to me, the time for inspections is over. There needs to be proper union representation in the factories and a way of monitoring conditions on an ongoing basis.

I think the arguments saying Foxconn is a relatively good payer in China and that some of the suicides at its plant could be blamed on the mental health of rural workers not being able to cope with such hard and monotonous work is missing the point.

I don’t know many people who’d rather not spend a little more on their shiny new iPhone/Pad/Pod etc if they could be assured it was manufactured in decent conditions by workers who receive a decent wage and are treated with respect.

The only worry is that the ever fickle customer will eventually get distracted and move onto some other piece of news long before the problems have been properly addressed, while Apple’s spin machine works overtime to claim enough improvements have been made.

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Can Baidu make it big on the world stage?

chinese dragonChinese search engine Baidu had a busy week last week, launching a new version of its browser software, announcing decent financials and planed expansion internationally and into the mobile space.

As I wrote in The Register, however, it’s unsure whether the company which has roundly trounced Google in its home market has the ability to do the same to the US web behemoth across the Pacific.

Reports emerged that the firm is planning to set up some kind of outpost in Brazil – dangerously close to Googleland – while CEO Robin Li said it would be looking to build on its strong financial performance in 2011 by monetising mobile traffic and social media platforms and expand internationally.

The mobile piece makes absolute sense. With the mobile internet expected to far outgrow its fixed line antecedent – especially in developing countries – it’s an area any web company should be concentrating on.

Gartner analyst Roger Sheng told me that the firm would look increasingly to hardware partnerships with the likes of Lenovo, ZTE and others to gain a bigger foothold in the mobile space and to make money out of this market, while also looking to monetise its mobile search traffic.

The international picture is a little less clear, however. Baidu has traditionally failed to set the world alight outside China. Despite launching various services in Japan, Thailand and even the Middle East, the firm has struggled to differentiate its offerings from local competitors.

According to SEC figures cited in a recent China Daily report, the firm actually lost over $100m from its international operations between 2008 and 2010.

Put simply, it is still an immature company on the world stage and will be roundly beaten in Brazil,  where Google has a virtual monopoly, just as it was in Japan. Those tasked with masterminding a reversal of these fortunes from the firm’s new offices currently being built in Shenzhen will certainly have their work cut out.

Baidu made great play of being the home grown champion when Google was falling out of love with China, and may have won users over by ramping up the nationalism. It is also thought to have been simply better at dealing with Chinese language queries.

Both strategies are doomed internationally. It’s going to have to come up with something a little different to conquer markets outside the People’s Republic.


Facebook and China: a marriage definitely not made in heaven

great wall chinaSo, much of the talk this week has been whether Facebook’s latent desire to crack the Chinese market is actually going to lead anywhere. I wrote a piece for The Register based around some excerpts from the social networking giant’s IPO which indicate it is definitely still keen.

The next question to ask, then, is whether this is a good idea for Zuckerberg and co. I mean, he may be trying to learn Mandarin but that’s not going to count for much in the hard nosed business world in which Facebook now operates.

Firstly, it’s obvious that any Facebook – China detente is likely going to have to involve the former making some pretty big concessions over censorship and restricting certain content. That may give it the keys to the Chinese kingdom but it’s certainly not going to win it any friends internationally.

The repercussions of Twitter’s recent decision to allow tweets to be removed at a country level are still to be felt but the firm may be in danger of undoing all the good work its service has managed in the Middle East and beyond giving voice to the oppressed and ignored. Facebook could very easily follow in its path.

Secondly, as I mentioned in my news story, the firm will have some fierce competition from some quite mature and very popular home grown social networking rivals such as Sina, Tencent and Renren.

Finally, and maybe more importantly for Zuck and co, was the point made in a Reuters report that online advertising is still not a very big deal in China. As I’m sure the social networking behemoth is aware, the Chinese market is not the cash cow many are making it out to be.


Twitter in the dock as Thailand steps up web censorship

Apologies for the radio silence over the past week or so, but I have finally made the move out to SE Asia, where I’ll be poking my nose into all things technology for the forseeabe future (as well as documenting some food-related escapades over at Death Noodle).

One of the first stories that attracted my attention was that of Thailand becoming the first nation to publicly back Twitter’s controversial latest move to assist governments in taking down restricted content in their geographies. It was first reported here in the Bangkok Post.

Thailand already censors its citizens by removing content which is pornographic or harmful to its royal family, or both, and now it will be teaming up with the microblogging phenomenon to regulate the web even more rigorously in the country.

I reported Twitter’s original decision a fortnight or so ago on The Register, claiming that the move could be seen by cynics as a thinly veiled attempt to cosy up to repressive regimes. Well, one such regime – although nowhere near China on the repression stakes – has certainly nailed its colours to the mast. Let’s see how many more come out and declare their intentions.

The worry is that they will certainly not be doing this in as public a way as the government of Thailand. While it has been a force for much social good in the world since its inception, Twitter let a lot of people down when it announced this decision. The fear is that the true effects of the much more malign and covert deals certain governments may striking  be will be difficult to document.