Apple is intrinsically, inarguably, undeniably, cool. Today, the company and its products are freely associated with a hip, refined crowd, basking in a vibrant, tech-savvy, often liberal, culture. Visit any college campus and observe how many lecture desks are occupied by MacBooks or iPads. Hold an iPhone 5 in your hand — sans case — and I dare you not to feel a connection with it you didn’t think was possible for inanimate objects. Even Apple Geniuses seem to have some sort of edge over their tech support counterparts, a little more interesting, a little less geeky.
When did all this happen? Perhaps when we were first told to “Think Different” in the iconic 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Perhaps when a troupe of fast-stepping silhouettes with white ear buds danced into our hearts atop multi-colored backdrops. Perhaps when Steve Jobs credited acid trips as one of the most important things he ever did in his life.
But beyond being celebrated as the epitome of cool, Apple is also the darling of business school case studies and the model that every entrepreneur aspires to mold their venture after. With so much attention and goodwill, the company bears a natural responsibility and should be held to a certain standard. However, underneath all the good vibes and alternative marketing campaigns runs a well-oiled corporate machine with every piece of its operations calibrated to maximize efficiency and profit making. Unfortunately, this bottom line mentality has led the company to compromise on many fair labor laws, falling far short of meeting that standard.
Apple’s pride and joy used to be not only its innovation but also its means of production. In 1990, Jobs famously said, “I’m as proud of the factory as I am of the computer,” describing the American plants that manufactured the early Macintoshes. Fast forward twenty years — during a dinner at the White House in early 2011, Jobs made another well-known remark, “those jobs aren’t coming back,” in response to President Obama’s inquiry about manufacturing the iPhone domestically. Things have certainly changed, and not for the better.
Apple’s supply chain involves a vast and complex web of companies that span across multiple continents. Its main supply chain partner is Foxconn Corporation, a giant global contract manufacturer estimated to produce over 40% of the world’s consumer electronics products. Foxconn employs over 1.2 million workers in China, many of whom have a hand in assembling Apple products.
In 2010, a series of employee deaths and suicides garnered international media attention and shed light on the factories’ deplorable working conditions. Extensive reports released by organizations like the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) highlight extreme work hours, unpaid overtime, and inhumane treatment of workers.
Both Apple and Foxconn have released numerous statements pledging their commitment to improving work conditions but their actions have not matched their words. For example, while the basic pay rate has increased for Foxconn workers, overall salaries have fallen as overtime work has been cut. In some cases, these modest pay hikes even force workers to work unpaid overtime.
The labor violations don’t end there. Last fall, it was revealed that Foxconn had been forcing students to work in its manufacturing lines under the guise of “internships.” To prepare for Apple’s upcoming release of the iPhone 5, hundreds of students were recruited from local vocational schools to help ease labor shortages, often under the threat of not being able to graduate if they didn’t comply.
Such circumstances threaten the positive influences that globalization is believed to deliver. In the classic model, companies move their facilities abroad in search of lower costs. The benefits are twofold: (1) cheaper wages translate to reduced prices for consumers, and (2) new jobs made available in developing countries lead to better quality of life.
However, in the case of Apple, these benefits are virtually nonexistent. Customers are still paying high mark-ups for their iPhones and workers in developing countries are still very much suppressed by their work conditions. As Aditya Chakrabortty observed in his Guardian piece, the only people who win are investors and top executives.
In the face of these labor abuses, it’s difficult to negotiate Apple’s hip, trendy image with its record of emphasizing greed and profit-maximization. As disappointing as this inconsistency is, Apple has begun to take steps in recent years to improve transparency and increase the auditing of its suppliers. It’s a good start and if the company can commit to this shift in priorities, it has the power to change the world, again. Apple has already revolutionized the consumer electronics industry, perhaps now it can revolutionize the labor industry as well.