Should Apple Take Responsibility For Concerns Over Its Chinese Labor Practices?

    April 19, 2012

Apple, the company that’s considered to be many consumers’ favorite gadget maker, is under fire for what’s happening at its Foxconn factories in China. Aside from numerous reports of suicide and suicide attempts, The New York Times, in January, revealed specific details about the working conditions in the factories, which sparked a lot of controversy over the tech company.

In The New York Times report, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza wrote: “the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

Is Apple responsible for the poor working conditions in Foxconn’s Chinese factories? Why or why not?

Ever since this article was published, both Apple and Foxconn have gained extensive criticism. Many groups, including the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), are speaking out against Apple claiming it should take full responsibility.

Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of Economic Policy Institute “Apple is certainly to blame because Apple is in control of the situation,” Ross Eisenbrey, the Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute, said to WebProNews.

The EPI, along with Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), the Workers Rights Consortium, and others, recently held a forum to raise awareness of these issues. Their research, as Eisenbrey explained to us, found that Foxconn’s Chinese factory employees work 60-70 hours per week, are exposed to dangerous chemicals, experience explosions from uncontrolled aluminum dust, and are under a military-style of management.

In addition, a large part of the workforce consists of 16-18-year old individuals that serve as “interns” from local vocational schools. Eisenbrey, however, told us that these individuals do not even work in the areas in which they are hoping to obtain training in.

He pointed out that many of these conditions break Apple’s Code of Conduct as well as Chinese laws.

“Apple has the capacity, because it makes such a big profit, to offer a better margin to Foxconn,” said Eisenbrey.

“They have the power to do that – they’ve just chosen not to do that,” he added.

According to him, the problems date back to 2005. At that time, Apple made a commitment to enforce improvements. But, Eisenbrey told us that he doesn’t believe Apple’s commitment was strong enough since the issues remain several years later.

The debate around Apple its Foxconn factories came even further into the spotlight after Rob Schmitz, Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai, had the opportunity to visit the Foxconn Longhua facility:

Interestingly, Foxconn’s plants in Brazil also produce Apple products, but the working conditions are very different from China’s. Under Brazilian law, workers are required to have union representation. As a result, workers have better wages, transportation, and benefits.

A Table Comparing China's Foxconn Work Conditions to Brazil's

Since Brazil shows that Foxconn and Apple can abide by such mandates, Eisenbrey thinks the companies are more than capable of facilitating similar practices in China.

Last month, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) conducted an investigation of Foxconn’s plants in China in response to the widespread scrutiny of both Apple and Foxconn. Since the audit found multiple violations, the companies are required by the FLA’s remediation policy to make changes.

The improvements involve reducing worker overtime, giving workers a stronger voice, and reforming the “internship” program. While these provisions would help the current circumstances, Eisenbrey and others see a problem in the fact that the changes won’t begin until June of 2013.

“We get a report that basically puts off changes for more than a year and doesn’t really promise anything more than Apple and Foxconn promised in 2006,” he said.

“They made commitments 6 years ago, and here we are again 6 years later and nothing has changed,” he continued.

Although Eisenbrey is skeptical given the comapanies’ past actions, he told us that he hopes Apple will step up, take responsibility, and do what’s right.

“People have believed Apple’s commitment in the past, and if they go on making commitments and breaking them, sooner or later, that’s gonna penetrate the buying public,” he said.

“Apple is a very efficient, powerful organization that, when it wants to get something done, can get it done,” he said. “They haven’t gotten this done.”

Could all this scrutiny result in Apple becoming a less valuable company? What do you think?