Sunday, December 19, 2010

Is the iPad manufactured at a modern sweatshop?

It depends who you're asking and what's your definition of modern sweatshop. last Monday I heard Frederik Balfour, who wrote a lengthy story about Foxconn for Bloomberg Business Week earlier this year, on NPR. He was talking with Melissa Block on 'All Things Considered'.

Block asked him "When you were at the Foxconn plant, you spoke with about two dozen workers, what did they tell you about conditions there? And did it seem to you like they were working essentially in a sweatshop?"

And Balfour replied:

"No. I've visited plenty of sweatshops around the world, from Central America to Vietnam. This is definitely not a sweatshop.

The thing is, though, that these workers are probably under more pressure than anyone else working in China. The supervisors are extremely draconian. There's no margin for error. The sophistication of the process and the products that they're producing means that they're always under the gun. And that, I think, is what contributes to the high stress level at Foxconn."

According to Wikipedia, a sweatshop is (sweat factory) is "a working environment considered to be unacceptably difficult or dangerous — especially by developed countries with high standards of living. However sweatshops may exist in any country. Sweatshop workers often work long hours for unusually low pay, regardless of laws mandating overtime pay or a minimum wage. Child labour laws may be violated. Sweatshops may have hazardous materials and situations. Employees may be subject to employer abuse without an easy way to protect themselves."

So even though Foxconn's employees are paid decent wages in Chinese terms and work in clean and shiny modern building and you won't there child labour, there are still some disturbing similarities between the conditions of work at Foxconn according to Balfour (a plant where the supervisors are extremely draconian, there's no margin for error and workers are always the gun) and Wikipedia's description of sweatshop.

Balfour explains in his article for Bloomberg Business Week that Apple knows about the conditions of work at Foxconn, but has its own reasons not to cut the ties with Foxconn, even though it violates Apple's code of conduct:In his article for Bloomberg Business Week.

"The incident prompted Apple executives to dispatch an audit team to investigate conditions at the Longhua plant. The report, still available on Apple's company website, uncovered several violations of Apple's code of conduct, including excessive overtime, an overly complicated wage structure, and unacceptable living conditions such as triple-decker bunk beds. Foxconn made changes that included an overhaul of its overtime practices.

Although Apple pressured Foxconn, Steve Jobs wasn't about to sever ties with Hon Hai, not with preparations under way for the production of Apple's next big product, the iPhone, which came out the following year. "Steve Jobs' achievements wouldn't be possible without Terry," says Chang Tien-wen, author of the 2005 book The Tiger and The Fox: Terry Gou's Global Competitive Strategy."

Apparently the violation of Apple's code of conduct doesn't stop Apple from continuing its working relationship with Foxconn and only two weeks ago AppleInsider reported that 'Foxconn rumored to ship next-gen iPad in 100 days for April launch'.

The bottom line is that no matter how you define Foxconn, I think the employees there deserve better conditions. It is not a big secret that it's all about the pricing of the product and Foxconn ability to provide it in minimum cost to Apple. Probably manufacturing it elsewhere (or even at Foxconn) in better working conditions will translate to higher costs. Still, doesn't seem right that Apple's financial results should come on the expense of the rights of employees for decent conditions, even if they are in China and even if they work for a powerful company such as Foxconn.

If Apple wants us to take seriously what it describes as its commitment to "the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base" ("Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility wherever our products are made. We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes."), something has to change.

What will make this change happren? I have a little faith in Apple's own will to do something about it, but I have more faith in Apple's stakeholders and I hope that a continuous demand of especially of customers will eventually get Apple to do the right thing and make the iPad not just a cool device, but also a one that is manufactured responsibly.

More articles on this issue:

Can the iPad be "green" if it is manufactured in a sweatshop?

Raz @ Eco-Libris

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