The more fundamental problem is that Apple's reporting doesn't tell you much about what impact the company is having. Cook's email, for example, says that Apple's
Supplier Responsibility team led more than 200 audits at facilities throughout our supply chain last year. These audits make sure [emphasis added] that working conditions are safe and just.
But othey don't. Suppliers are notorious for faking pay records and gaming the inspectors. And Apple's track record makes clear that conditions are not safe and just.
Cook also boasts that Apple offers free continuing education programs at factories in China, saying that "more than 60,000 workers have enrolled in classes to learn business, entrepreneurial skills or English." But are they earning more money? Working fewer hours? Safer?
See the problem here? Apple and other companies are measuring their actions, and not their impact. There's a big difference between the two. It's reason why we don't know whether the people who make the iPad are better or worse off than those who make an HP printer or a Microsoft XBox.
"Companies report on their activities -- audits conducted, training delivered -- but don't tell us what impact that effort has achieved for workers," Dan says. "As a result, while companies are getting better at reporting on their activities, we don't have a meaningful way to compare one company to another." We'd know more if companies reported on the wages that workers are paid, the number of workplace injuries, turnover rates, environmental discharges and the like.
Those who follow these issues also tell me that workplace issues are not part of procurement at most companies. If suppliers had to demonstrate that they provide ethical workplaces as a condition of doing business with a big U.S. brand, companies might avoid embarrassment -- and more important, make a difference in the lives of their workers.
Having said that, it's worth remembering that globalization and the manufacturing jobs it has brought to Shenzhen have on balance been good for China and its people. Workers line up for jobs at Foxconn, as the Atlantic reported last week. No less a crusader for the rights of the global poor than Nicholas Kristof has said as much, most famously in a 2000 Times Magazine article called Two Cheers for Sweatshops.
More recently, Kristof, who lived in China, told This American Life that industrialization has
created massive employment opportunities, especially for young women, who frankly didn't have a lot of alternatives. That tended to give women more clout within families, within the community ... for many Chinese, the grimness of factories like Foxconn was better than the grimness of rice paddies.
If you'd prefer the opinion of a Nobel Prize-winning economist, here's Paul Krugman, writing in Slate, back in 1997:
While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.
It is not an edifying spectacle, but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful, but nonetheless significantly better.
What's more, competition for workers -- and the very beginnings of a labor movement -- has also begun to improve conditions in China's factories. To retain workers, owners are said to be improving wages, working conditions and living conditions, albeit slowly.
My MacBookPro costs $1299. My iPad2 retails for $499. I don't even know how much my iPhone costs, and I don't want to think about how many iPods, Nanos or shuffles I've bought for my family over the years. By selling premium-priced products and generating high margins, Apple was the U.S.'s most valuable company -- worth more than ExxonMobil, Microsoft and IBM, last time I checked. It's holding $97 billion in cash and short-term securities.
Simple fairness dictates that more of that wealth should be shared with the workers in China who are making Apple products.