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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