China's Labor Conditions: Why Is Apple Being Singled Out?

Apple should not be singled out for outsourcing manufacturing to Communist China, but the company also shouldn't be surprised that the freedom-loving customer base it cultivated is disappointed.

The hot issue of poor working conditions at Chinese factories engulfing Apple picked up steam last week when activist organization Change.org began circulating petitions and handing them to Apple employees at its Grand Central Store.

Now Apple hopes to staunch the controversy, announcing today that the Fair Labor Association will conduct audits of Apple’s overseas suppliers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. Foxconn was the target of a New York Times article that brought the issue into the public spotlight.

“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope.”

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The phrase, “unprecedented in the electronics industry,” is an especially important one considering that virtually all major consumer electronics makers outsource manufacturing to China, such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Of course, all sorts of non-electronics goods come from China and land in U.S. shopping malls, too.

Industry watchers are rightfully asking, Why is Apple being singled out?

My take: I feel Apple should be applauded for its efforts to improve working conditions in China, not vilified. The New York Times portrayal of Foxconn, for instance, shows just how far China’s factories have improved thanks to American companies’ investments over the years. (Also, I argued that Americans are fixated on price, not value, which has basically forced U.S. companies to seek cheap overseas labor.)

Not everyone shares my views. My respected colleague, Bill Snyder, called for a boycott of Apple products for China’s human rights abuse. More importantly he tackles head on why Apple should be singled out.

“Apple has become an iconic American company, whose brand equity is constantly boosted by millions and millions of dollars of free publicity,” Snyder writes, adding, “What's more, our dollars have made Apple the most valuable (measured by market capitalization) in the country. We have a right to use our purchasing power to influence the companies we do business with. And Apple can afford it.”

I still don’t think Apple should be vilified, but Snyder does make a good point about Apple’s accountability. Apple has positioned and sold its products to consumers who side with the image of the renegade and freedom for all. Who can forget Apple’s image-making “1984” Macintosh commercial?

Too young to remember? Here it is.

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, "1984", written in 1949, is about a totalitarian future complete with thought-crimes and a government-controlled press. The dark imagery in the novel (and the Apple advertisement) is Orwell’s warning against the rise of communism, some scholars believe.

All of which brings us back to Apple’s China-labor problem today. China is a communist country that, let’s face it, suppresses its own people. Let’s not forget the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Shortly after the New York Times story ran, Cook sent an internal memo to Apple employees. Cook wrote: “Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.”

The question shouldn't be “Why is Apple being singled out?” The question should be “Why is Apple surprised?” Apple courted "Fight the Power" consumers who are more likely to be outraged by labor abuses. No other consumer electronics maker has made its image to suit this type of consumer.

It would be like PETA serving foie gras at a member luncheon – you can’t have it both ways.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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