by Tom Kaneshige

The American Way: Apple iPhones Made By Children

Opinion
Mar 02, 2010
MobileSmall and Medium Business

Outraged at Apple's child-labor discovery? Our hands are just as dirty.

Consumers are wringing their hands over Apple’s admission that some of its overseas suppliers had employed nearly a dozen underage workers last year. So what?

Outrage is a matter of convenience for a nation of consumers swayed by the almighty price point. A few dollars can influence our purchasing decision. Yet the search for a bargain ultimately forces companies to seek manufacturing in cheap-labor markets like China and the Philippines, where employers don’t even take their own country’s labor laws seriously.

Apple released its internal audit of suppliers last weekend. “Across the three facilities, our auditors found records of 11 workers who had been hired prior to reaching the legal age, although the workers were no longer underage or no longer in active employment at the time of our audit,” the report says. The workers were 15 at the time, while the countries’ legal age minimum for workers is 16.

The audit, which covered facilities in China, Czech Republic, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States, also found many other violations. Some workers were being paid below minimum wage or overworked or cheated out of benefits. Apple says it’s requiring suppliers to fix these problems.

Let’s be clear: It’s quite possible that Apple’s internal audit missed a lot more worker violations. And it’s virtually assured that a vast majority of U.S. companies working with overseas manufacturers yet lacking the wherewithal to conduct an internal audit are experiencing similar violations. Maybe all of them.

Singling out Apple, especially given that it blew the whistle on itself, is just silly and ignorant. The underlying problem is that U.S. consumers are consumed with the lowest price. We love to get a deal, like AT&T subsidizing the cost of the iPhone.

Cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s no wonder Apple had to get to a cheap $500 price point for the iPad to compete with cheap netbooks. The only way to do that is to tap cheap overseas labor.

Sure, a case can be made that greedy companies with mind-boggling margins should be blamed for the wrongdoings of their overseas suppliers. Nike comes to mind. Americans blasted the iconic company in the late 1990s because its overseas manufacturers paid children ridiculously low wages to make shoes that later sold for more than a hundred dollars in the United States.

The truth, though, is that many U.S. companies are forced to get their manufacturing done overseas in order to be competitive. The ugly truth is that often the bargain product we hold in our hand was made by little hands for pennies on the dollar.

We bought it, now we live with it.

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.