Why are the fanboys rushing to defend Apple’s child labor record?

[UPDATE: Outside of the Chinese media and the Daily Telegraph, it seems like nobody is particularly interested in covering Apple’s child labor record. TechNewsWorld takes a hard look at why, and comes down hard on a compliant, Apple-infatuated media.]

Spend any time reading online technology reviews and you’ve inevitably come across the Apple Fanboys – collectively, Apple’s most devoted customers, prone to blast away at any commentator with the temerity to write negatively about Apple’s products (or extol Microsoft’s). They’re a predictable bunch, but I must admit that I really didn’t expect them to show up for “Apple admits using child labour” a Saturday article in the Daily Telegraph by my friend Malcolm Moore (a very good reporter who follows up the article with an op-ed, here). Yet there they are, lambasting Malcolm at a rate of 2 to 1 (in a thread that now runs 120+ comments) for having the nerve to report that “only 61 per cent of Apple’s suppliers were following regulations to prevent injuries in the workplace and a mere 57 per cent had the correct environmental permits to operate.”

It’s worse at blogs devoted to Apple products. As just one example: an unusual number of commentators at TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) going so far as to suggest that child laborers at Apple are lucky. This borderline obscene example is a good example, and hardly an outlier:

“I would have jumped at the chance of build Apple mac at 15. think of the work experience. The headline should be “Apple giving teenagers valuable work experience”! 🙂

Presumably, the commentator wouldn’t have felt so lucky if he’d been employed at the iPhone manufacturer in Suzhou that recently exposed 49 workers to toxic n-hexane.

Snark aside, what distresses me most is an apparent erosion in the standards expected of developed-world companies operating in the developing world. Twenty years ago, when NGOs first started organizing around labor abuses at Nike and other foreign manufacturers in the developing world, misconduct much milder than what’s happening at Apple was cause for protest and boycotts. What’s changed in the intervening years? I’m inclined to say that consumers in the developed world have become acclimated, if not accustomed, to the idea that affordable products must be manufactured in facilities that don’t meet the minimum requirements of their home markets. But I’m not convinced, and I’d be interested in hearing other perspectives.

However, I am convinced of this: the Chinese public isn’t acclimated to the idea that companies like Apple demand and ensure better working conditions for employees and contractors in San Francisco, than they do for employees and contractors in China. So far, there’s been little call for Apple to rectify that situation. But as the self-reported violations pile up, I have no doubt that Chinese consumers will start to wonder why, and Apple’s advantages – whatever they might be – will start to erode in a market that the company covets badly.

[On a related note: In September I reported for Foreign Policy on the double standard that separates Apple’s US-based e-waste recycling initiative, and the pathetically inadequate one that it’s barely implemented in China.]

17 comments

  1. I saw the comments on Malcolm’s article as well and I thought they were funny. I mean funny in the way that the article was not aiming to that public at all, but I guess it showed up on techmeme or some of the techboys/fanboys aggregators and there you go. Those guys are are not to be taken seriously, IMO, tech is one of the big subjects on the internets and it attracts almost as many people as porn… and about the same level of intelligence 🙂

    The conclusions are indeed scary. If a relatively responsible company like Apple reports all this, then what is going on in the less responsible companies that don’t even care to report?

  2. Whilst Mr Moore is undoubtedly a good reporter the article might have been fairer and less sensationalist if he’d manage to include a few words, maybe even a paragraph, on how Apple’s record compares to other manufacturers.
    Maybe Mr Moore’s deep concern with child labour will manifest itself in future articles about other companies…

  3. UK Visa, that there are worse offenders of child labour than Apple excuses the company from pointed criticism? 五十步笑百步.

  4. I used to think “Think Different” was just brilliant marketing. Now I’m beginning to think it’s brilliant propaganda. There should be a cast study in how Apple turned a liberal customer base into rabid defenders of its abyssmal labor practices.

  5. Moore’s article was yellow journalism at its worst. It didn’t give Apple credit for how much it’s done and didn’t mention how much worse other companies are. That’s why Apple’s “fanboys” are so upset. Apple is making a good effort in China that’s better than anyone else’s. Sure the rhetoric gets strong but what do you expect when you blame the one company that’s trying to do something positive over there?

  6. I think one thing that might not be understood by some of the Apple comment box defenders of the “valuable experience” of underage work is how factory work works in China. Generally the factory employees live at the factory, dormitory style. There’s a big difference between even minimal parental supervision while working at a suburban mall while going to high school and moving away from home, undereducatd, and into a totally unsupervised living situation. I wonder how many of those same defending commenters would put their teen-aged daughter or son on an overnight bus to Dongguan.

  7. Apple’s track record, and inaction widely discussed in niches of China CSR, may come back to haunt them indeed.

  8. Hi Adam,

    Fanboys, whether for Apple’s, China’s, or America’s technocrats, are annoying, but in this instance I don’t think they’re all wrong. Many people are just pointing out that Apple is being comparatively open about this, and we shouldn’t be so naive as to think other companies aren’t worse offenders… From the article it does look like some issues are so egregious and ongoing that they should have been fixed by now. Are there any Western firms that have managed to enforce their internal workplace/safety standards in Chinese companies? We all know the Chinese companies have a lot of latitude to evade domestic regulations. I imagine those same managers would do everything in their power to avoid meddling by their customers, too. Obviously that hasn’t stopped Apple (and all the rest of corporate America) from climbing in bed with them. Is it too sanguine to imagine that Apple is, by divulging this information about their vendors, actually trying to ‘move the ball’ a bit with respect to worker’s rights?

  9. Future historians are sure going to be confused by Apple. Between the fanboys and the breathless coverage from the news media (which covers Apple’s every move, while ignoring whole swathes of the tech industry), it will be difficult to appreciate Apple’s true significance. A lot of noise to filter out in the primary sources.

    Whereas we know how Bill Gates will be remembered — as another Andrew Carnegie: a Captain of Industry who retired and spent the rest of his life giving away his wealth. If Microsoft isn’t exactly another US Steel, then at least it’s another IBM. But Apple? It’d be amusing to see how it’s perceived in another, say, fifty years.

  10. Adam.

    when reading through the comments on the article, and on others like it, I think it is important to keep in mind that in reality they are a minority. that while 20-30 of them may come out and support Apple, it is largely because they really have no idea of the actual conditions on the ground, or the proper context by which those facts should be considered.

    Case in point is the entire argument that apple somehow being ahead of everyone else as something to celebrate. first off, Apple made that comment as a quote from a supplier and second, anyone who knows anything about the programs of their competitors know that it just is not true.

    At the same time, for those who do not have a manufacturing backgroud (much less factory audit expoerience), then this report is simply all true. No need to question anything. Of course their suppliers – while exposing their employees to chemicals, employing underage workers, and not paying for over time – are meeting the ethical requirements of Apple at a rate of 95%.. of course, it does not represent the reality, but this report is not meant to represent reality. It is meant to placate NGOs and media.

    Were it meant to be a real open piece, then it would have (1) built on the 2009 report (which was – while scary – an excellent report that showed real transperancy) (2) included the Foxconn and Wintek issues that were faced this year – namely the suicide of one worker and 100 others who were hospitalized through chemical exposure and (3) it would have named suppliers who had acutally had contracts pulled for labor violations.

    But it didn’t. In fact, it did everything but that.

    Which, leads me to my last point. End of day, while there are a number of people who are willing to go out and support Apple’s efforts, they are doing the company a huge disservice at the end of the day. Apple will, if these issues persist, ultimately spend their brand equity on a problem that requires little money to work through. They will never have a 100% record (the critics are right on that), but that is not an excuse for not trying.. and the fact that 2500 people went on strike last month at the same wintek facility saw 100 people go to the hospital, it is clear to me that there will be a point where the Chiense consumers tell Apple that its products can be made and sold somewhere else.

    So, to sum up (sorry.. I know this is long), it you are a a true Apple cult member, you should be pressing for Steve Jobs to take real tangible steps. Nike, Mattel, and others have already paid the price for failing to act, and Apple could very well be the next case study.

    r
    http://www.collectiveresponsibility.org

  11. Joe – Glad to see you back and commenting. For the most part, I think Collective Responsibility, in comment 10, responds in much the way that I would to your points. In the end, I think it comes down to whether you see Apple’s efforts as PR meant to divert interested media, or a good faith effort to move the ball forward. I tend to think it’s the former. In regard to your question about foreign companies that enforce their foreign workplace standards in China – 3M comes to mind as a company that’s done a pretty good job in that regard. Other might have additional examples. But you’re absolutely right – it’s a vanishingly small number.

  12. Adam, over and above Apple’s questionable brandname (and the Scientology Like Cult that worships it) – the larger question is this: “What is the true worth of an ‘American Brand’ on the International Stage nowadays?” Seriously, as the number of scandals and news exposes cover the conditions at Tier One thru Nine shops around the world, how many American OEMs can actually continue to tout premium prices for “their brands”? From the number of retail and electronic shops closing up in North America and Europe… that answer appears to be “few and fewer”.

  13. I think it is a positive thing that these discoveries come from Apple’s own audits of the factories it uses. The fact that they are performing those audits will force other companies to do the same thing. I am sure that by making these findings public, they are bound to be fixed and a new report will come out later showing that.

  14. I’m kinda with the pro-Apple crowd here. We’ve got very used to thinking about corporations as these all-powerful shadowy entities (think 24), when they’re actually buffeted by the forces of politics as much as anyone else. When we say other companies have done worse than Apple, it’s not to excuse Apple’s behaviour. It’s to say, it’s pretty much impossible to do better in China. Apple have to swim in the polluted waters of Chinese government client relations. Their efforts to improve conditions are being actively thwarted by a Chinese bureaucracy that values commerce higher than human lives. As you said in your FP article: with the left hand, China opens clean recycling centers; with the right it maintains the damaging, carcinogenic slum recycling system.

    Openness, which Apple is bringing with its own audits, is hard work in China, and it is the best thing Apple could do.

    God, I really do sound like a fanboy. As with Sean, I have no Apple products myself and no interest in the brand.

  15. I know I’m coming a little late to this discussion. Oh well.

    I do not have factory audit experience. I do HR consulting for manufacturing customers. I used to be in the computer industry… in two different Taiwanese companies. And I live in Suzhou.

    Some things to note:

    I guess Apple should be congratulated by coming clean with their problems. But that’s not the whole story.

    Apple is still using Foxconn and Wintek. Call me prejudiced. I admit it. But I think Taiwanese companies suck. They have the worst reputations in China. They pay of the lowest salaries. They invest the least in protecting and developing their non-Taiwanese employees. I cannot give you quantitative data on this. Where I live, its common knowledge;

    I have called on about 30 Taiwanese companies in this area. You can always tell if the company is Taiwanese in the Winter time when you walk in… they don’t turn on the heat (actually, Hong Kong companies never turn on the heat as well). They are not cheap because they hate non-Taiwanese (although many Taiwanese do hate mainland people). The problem is that the HQ of these companies do not want to invest in HR (training, EHS, competitive salaries, etc) outside of Taiwan. They don’t empower local Taiwanese managers (and the local management is ALWAYS from Taiwan because they do not trust Mainland-ers) to improve the labor relations. Furthermore, the management of Taiwanese companies quite often have little-to-no formal leadership training.

    So getting back to Apple and Foxconn. Foxconn is a huge volume contract manufacture which offers lowest rates by strictly controlling costs and offering economies of scale. Meaning… less likely to hire good local managers. Less likely to invest enough in safety equipment. Less likely to look too closely at their vendors’ EHS compliance. This is the manufacturer which Apple choose. NOT every phone maker manufactures in this way. Nokia and Samsung have their own factories in China. They control their vendors better because of this. I believe that Motorola either has their own factory or uses long-time SOE vendors… but anyway, Motorola – the inventor of Six Sigma – gives extensive training to its vendors.

    Another thing to note from the article. “Apple said it had required the factories to “perform immediate inspections of their wastewater discharge systems” and hire an independent environmental consultant to prevent future violations.” So Apple is not using their own inspectors to investigate. They are not paying this fee… they are requiring the vendors to hire their own inspector. That’s not how its supposed to work. The wastewater systems need to be certified by government approved inspectors. And since inspectors can (conceivably) be bribed, it should be Apple’s own Compliance Team which investigates.

    Just my thoughts.

  16. Sean – Apple is not a model for others as they themselves were forced into it. It is a problem that, even though they continue to ignore, grew to a point that NGOs, investors, and media pressured them into.

    So, don’t give them points for this. Wonder why they have not made material changes to their supplier line up when their responsibility report says that they END RELATIONSHIPS with suppliers… it just isn’t true.

    R
    http://www.collectiveresponsibility.org

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