Apple and Foxconn: Sustainable Labor is a Must

Consider also that Apple has more than adequate resources to oversee and demand better performance from its overseas suppliers. Apple’s cash holdings reached $98 billion in January 2012 (more than the U.S. government), the deployment of which is considered a key challenge for CEO Tim Cook. One productive use would be to invest in enhanced monitoring and enforcement of company labor policies to prevent reputational damage to the Apple brand.

We can hope that the workplace reviews commissioned by Apple will be meaningful. Unfortunately, Reuters reports that the president of the Fair Labor Association, the entity hired to investigate workplace conditions at Apple’s top eight suppliers in China, suggests that suicides at Foxconn’s Apple plants might be due to monotony, boredom or alienation.  Severe alienation, just possibly. But boredom and monotony?

I also hope that it proves more than sadly ironic that both Apple and Foxconn publicize their green efforts. Foxconn’s website  prominently refers to Social Environment Responsibility and posts CSR (corporate social responsibility) reports for 2008, 2009 and 2010. Apple posts its environmental metrics and its actions on supplier responsibility.  Reporting is a start, but the treatment of workers needs to be made a core aspect of CSR and measurable results—not words on paper -- are what count.

If you want to drive change at Apple and among its overseas suppliers, here’s how you can help:

  • Let Apple know how you feel about labor conditions at its Chinese suppliers by e-mailing supplierresponsibility@apple.com. Feel free to send along a link to this blog.
  • Sign a petition to Apple at Change.org or at SumOfUs.org. 250,000 signatures had been collected as of February 9 and more are being sought.

UPDATE: Within days of this post, we've started to see progress on the Apple-Foxconn front. Over the weekend of February 18-19, Foxconn Technology announced that it would raise base wages at its Chinese plants by 16 to 25 percent, and will be limiting overtime.

On February 17, the Fair Labor Association stated that its preliminary labor audit of Foxconn's Shenzhen Apple plant had revealed "tons of issues." While such issues have yet to be specified publicly, they presumably extend beyond monotony and boredom, the factors cited as driving worker suicides by the Fair Labor Association earlier last week and quoted in my original blog.

The labor audit results are expected to be made public in March. I commend Apple for initiating the audit process and I look forward to learning what corrections are planned. Until corrections are made and verified, continued scrutiny of Apple remains appropriate.

It's worthwhile, as well, to note that Foxconn is reported to operate Chinese plants for numerous multinational giants, including Dell, Intel, Microsoft and Sony. A global sustainable labor standard remains urgent. And as labor conditions are improved and labor costs increase in emerging economies, perhaps it will become more attractive to shift some manufacturing and assembly work to the U.S. and other mature economies.

Apple store photo by 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com