By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
When Steven P. Jobs, Apple Inc. co-founder, chair and CEO, died of cancer on Oct. 5, 2011 millions of people worldwide mourned his passing. They profusely thanked and lionized him.
They credited Jobs with two feats: for having developed such innovative electronic devices as the iMac, iTunes, iPhone, iPod, and iPad; and for having turned around into profitability a near-bankrupt Apple in 1998, until it became the “world’s most valuable publicly traded company in 2011.”
But there is a downside to these glowing achievements.
Following the neoliberal globalization thrust, Apple has largely outsourced the manufacturing of its top-selling products to Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm that built its biggest factories in China, employing 1.4 million workers. For several years Apple has raked in huge profits at the expense of these workers who have been gravely overworked, underpaid, and exposed to dangers to their health and physical safety.
In January 2012, the New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune, came out with articles detailing problems at Foxconn. Among these were excessive overtime, underage workers (aged 16-17), deadly hazards (workers used a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens), and an explosion at a plant that killed four people.
After the publication, Apple and Foxconn became objects of barbed punning in the television comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”
Both firms could have anticipated the bad-news reportage because the NYT sent them detailed questions on working conditions. Thus Apple reacted in time to save its reputation.
In January Apple joined the Fair Labor Association, a workplace-monitoring group that sent auditors to inspect Foxconn plants in China, and released the names of many of its suppliers. At its home base in California, Apple hired three times more staff in its corporate social responsibility department.
In March, Apple’s senior vice president for operations, Jeff Williams, called a meeting in Shenzhen with Terry Gou, Foxconn founder and chair, and his top executives. They listened to the report of Auret van Heerden, the FLA auditor who inspected Foxconn’s three factories producing Apple products.
The FLA audit identified 360 problem areas and gave corresponding recommendations. There were 161problems on workers’ health and safety, 36 on environmental protection, 35 on compensation, 30 on working hours, 30 on hiring and personnel development, 22 on industrial relations, 21 on grievance system. The rest were on workplace discipline and termination/retrenchment.
“This is a disgrace!” Foxconn chair Gou reportedly yelled in reaction, “The world is watching! We are going to fix this, right here!”
Last Dec. 28, the IHT reported that by August Foxconn had carried out 284 of the 360 FLA recommendations.
Foxconn has announced that by July 2013 no employee would be allowed to work more than an average of 49 hours a week, the limit set by Chinese law. (It was found out that workers had been on almost 100-hour schedules a week). It also promised to increase wages “significantly.”
What of Apple? Despite having joined the FLA — the only one in the industry to have done so — it still falls short on transparency. It declines to release the audit reports on its inspected facilities. It also prohibits its safety and corporate responsibility experts from sharing their findings in conferences, in academic journals, or in any other forums.
Why? IHT quotes a former Apple executive as saying:
“Apple is scared that if we open the kimono too wide, it will ruin what has made Apple special. But that’s the only way to really improve things. If you don’t share what you know, then no one else gets to learn from your mistakes and discoveries.”
Quintessential capitalist selfishness!
Yet in a statement, Apple avows that it has taken working conditions very seriously and set workplace, dormitory and safety standards as no one else in the industry has done. It states:
“We have been upfront about the challenges we face and we are attacking issues aggressively. We believe deeply in transparency and have demonstrated this through reporting our shortcomings and exposing violations.”
Apple’s chief executive, Timothy Cook, also declared in a conference in May:
“There’re going to be other things that we do that we’re going to be the most transparent company in the world: on social change, supplier responsibility, on what we’re doing for the environment. We’re going to be the most transparent, because we think that transparency is so important in these areas, and that if we are, other people will copy what we’re doing.”
But deep down, another Apple executive candidly expressed what he thought was the huge impact of the NYT-IHT expose not only on Apple and Foxconn but on the entire industry. Allowing himself to be quoted on condition of anonymity, he conceded:
“The days of easy globalization are done. We know that we have to get into the muck now.”
The director of corporate social responsibility at Intel, another electronic firm, Gary Niekerk, chimed in:
“This is on the front burner for everyone now. No one wants to end up in a factory that treats people badly — that ends up on the front page.”
If he were still alive, what could Steve Jobs have said?
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January 18, 2013