Apple's China Problem

What can American consumers do to help protect workers' rights in China?
Apple contracts work to approximately 700,000 foreign employees, the majority of whom live and work in China. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 26, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

On Wednesday, The New York Times ran yet another story on the unsafe working conditions at Foxconn's factories in China. In addition to the most recent threats of mass suicide, the article describes a preventable explosion last May in a building that polished iPads, leaving four workers dead and 18 seriously injured from exposure to aluminum dust in their eyes and lungs.

Why does Apple continue to employ this human rights disaster (otherwise known as Foxconn)? Simple: the Chinese workforce is plentiful and cheap. Less than a decade ago, most of Apple's manufacturing was based in the United States. As American workers began to demand higher pay, benefits, and shorter hours, Apple, along with other American multinationals, began outsourcing their manufacturing overseas.

With geographical distance came indifference. As John Cary of CNN writes, labor disputes and injustices on the other side of the world feel far away and difficult to judge. Foxconn is a manufacturing behemoth, employing an estimated 800,000 workers that put together some of the most popular consumer electronics available today: Amazon's Kindle, Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation (and of course, Apple's iPhone and iPad). Despite repeated violations of workers' rights, little is being said and even less is being done. It's the same diffusion of responsibility that has infected most of corporate culture, allowing individuals to shrug helplessly as their company bulldozes over workers, customers, and the environment.

Our responsibility as consumers is to purchase products that are made in an ethical and sustainable manner. Though the policies of companies like Apple and Sony focus obsessively on the bottom line, with enough public pressure, even Titanic-sized multinationals can change direction mid-course. In the mid-'90s, when companies like Gap, Nike, and Levi Strauss moved their operations to factories in places like Mexico, college students began staging protests on behalf of underpaid workers who made attempts to strike and organize local unions. By 2005, public pressure had grown so great that Gap cancelled contracts with 136 factories found to have used child labor and worked employees more than 80 hours a week.

Today, change can happen even more quickly. The recent tail-between-their-legs retractions of Netflix, Bank of America, and Verizon show how public outrage over the Twittersphere can bring even the largest corporations to its knees. As CNN reports, students at Duke University, Apple CEO Tim Cook's alma mater, recently published an open letter calling on Cook and Apple to guarantee "conflict-free" products. For Apple to demand real changes from Foxconn, other students and universities have to follow suit in public and over social media, sending a clear message that the next generation of consumers will have a vastly different set of priorities.

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive to The New York Times. “And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”