I quit following boxing because of Muhammad Ali. Watching the ex-champ stutter and stumble through even simple sentences made me understand that the moral price of boxing was simply too high to remain a fan.
Now, the tragic story of Lai Xiaodong (as told by the New York Times) makes me think I should stop buying Apple products. Mr Lai was burned to death in a Chinese factory that has become notorious for conditions so harsh that workers kill themselves in despair, and like Mr. Lai, die in horrific accidents.
Is the moral price of spending our money on Apple products too high? I think it may be.
Asian manufacturing has a huge edge over its American competitors. China’s manufacturing sector is modern and well integrated, with factories flexible enough to redesign and retool in a fraction of the time it would take an American competitor, while still keeping quality very high. Consider this anecdote from the powerful Times series on Apple and China:
Tea and Biscuits
Apple CEO Steve Jobs decided that the first-generation iPhone should have glass screens, as opposed to plastic displays, just weeks before the device was due to ship. A factory in China quickly produced glass screens and shipped them to the Foxconn plant that assembles iPhones and many other products.
“New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.”
From a purely economic point of view, the anecdote shows how an ultra-flexible manufacturing infrastructure delivers competitive advantage. But there’s a flip side to that. Workers have to be as flexible as their machines, and that simply isn’t right. American workers would never live in dorms and consent to be on call 24 hours a day. Nor should they.
The accident that killed Mr Lai and four other workers was avoidable; dust from a manufacturing operation ignited, forming a fireball that charred the workers. There’s no Chinese OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) or independent union to force the factory to clean up – so the workers died.
One of Apple’s main weapons is its ability to crank out new products with new features on a relentless schedule, something it could never do without the flexible manufacturing service of Foxconn and other suppliers. Like everyone else who uses an iPhone or an iPad, I love that and had been eagerly awaiting my chance to upgrade to the iPhone 4S, from my aging 3GS.
But the story of Mr. Lai is making me very queasy. Is Siri, worth his life? Would my life be significantly worse if I kept using a smartphone with only one camera?
I know that Apple has, in fact, made some efforts to push suppliers into providing better, safer working conditions. That’s a start. But the company has to move a lot faster. And it knows it:
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”
“If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?” the executive asked.
Some of you will say, “Why pick on Apple? Are other computer manufacturers better?”
They may or may not be. But Apple has become an iconic American company, whose brand equity is constantly boosted by millions and millions of dollars of free publicity. Would the death of any CEO other than Steve Jobs have received even a tenth of that attention? Of course not. Like it or not Apple has to live up to its status.
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. The company earns more than $400,000 annually from the labor of each employee. If that number decreased to say $350,000 to clean up its act, would Apple’s shareholders go broke?Could a boycott work? It could. American consumers helped put an end to Nike’s use of child labor in Southeast Asia.
I admit that I’m somewhat conflicted about this issue. I’d love to hear your opinions. Join me in thinking about Mr. Lai,the value of technology and the value of human lives.