[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.]