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Michelle Chen

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After Tragedy, Apple Tries to Polish Image on Workers' Rights

Posted: 01/23/2012 4:56 pm

Apple's trademark is the intuitive elegance of its designs. Yet when it comes to corporate and labor practices, Apple's track record looks like a morass of obfuscation and murky public-relations smokescreens. So activists seeking a more user-friendly Apple on the human rights front should welcome the company's new "supplier responsibility" report.

But the results of 229 documented audits display the troubling gap between its slick modern ethos and grim working conditions in its supply chain. Reuters reports:

The audit found a number of violations, among them breaches in pay, benefits and environmental practices in plants in China, which figured prominently throughout the 500-page report Apple issued. Other violations found in the audit included dumping wastewater onto a neighboring farm, using machines without safeguards, testing workers for pregnancy and falsifying pay records.

The "supplier responsibility progress report" also found that "67 facilities had docked worker pay as a disciplinary measure." The company states it is continually working to deal with violations of overtime and child labor.

The report's admission of several cases of underage workers at some component suppliers bolsters the anecdotal evidence presented dramatically in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which performer Mike Daisey recalls encountering underage workers at an Apple supplier facility in Shenzhen.

Apple has come under fire over its connection to Foxconn, a Taiwan-based manufacturer that employs tens of thousands in fortress-like facilities -- a crucial part of the supply chain for iPhones and other high-profile products. These workers are typically young migrants from more rural areas, who are willing to brave long hours and paltry wages in mechanical, hyper-efficient assembly lines.

But something cracked in 2010, and a series of harrowing suicides -- workers flinging themselves from buildings -- got consumers around the world talking about whether their gadget obsession was complicit in pushing workers to the brink.

In a report last year, Apple claimed it was working in close partnership with Foxconn officials to prevent further tragedies. After Foxconn instituted some safeguards, such as mental health counseling programs, Apple stated, "Foxconn's response had definitely saved lives."

But if Foxconn and Apple have prevented some deaths, the lives of Chinese workers are in many cases still plagued by crippling hardship and frustration.

Two events show that the broader socioeconomic trends Apple has set in motion still roil throughout China and the global marketplace. Earlier this month at a central Beijing store, customers were told that the new iPhone 4S had sold out. Soon a crowd of anxious, angry customers reacted by lobbing eggs at the storefront. The scene revealed that China too is becoming a consumerist society, racing to follow the model of Western capitalism. And yet this rising culture of consumption only deepens the irony of poorer Chinese workers getting chained to the underbelly of that system.

Just recently, Foxconn was forced to negotiate with employees when many workers went on strike and some even "climbed to the top of the six-story dormitory on 3 January and threatened to jump before Wuhan city officials persuaded them to desist and return to work," reported the Guardian.

It seems that these workers, whose lives revolve around the Xbox, feel the only viable collective bargaining process open to them is threatening mass suicide. The workers climbed down this time, but the incident underscores how global consumerism perverts the balance between labor rights and profit-making.

The day-to-day lives of these Foxconn workers are fraught with endless working hours, surveillance and enforced silence -- all in the name of ensuring "quality." One Foxconn worker at a Chengdu plant remarked to Der Spiegel last year, "Order and obedience rule here." The oppressiveness of the workplace may feed into the overarching regime of censorship and control, which ensures that political activism is consistently stifled by authorities.

Apple -- an emblem of iconoclasm, individual freedom, and youth -- surely doesn't want its crisp image blemished by such sterile brutality. So under the leadership of new executive Tim Cook, the company just announced a partnership with the Fair Labor Association, which plans to carefully monitor working conditions and ensure Apple complies with the FLA code of conduct. That includes provisions for freedom of association, workplace health and safety, and regulated working hours.

Advocates who have long been in the trenches with Chinese workers, fostering emerging grassroots movements, are hopeful but wary of Apple's latest promises.

Pauline Overeem of the watchdog group Good Electronics told In These Times that the Apple-FLA agreement shows that public scrutiny and consumer-driven activist campaigns have had an impact. But she said, "The race has not yet been run, there are major challenges ahead. We are calling upon FLA to use our network, local contacts and expertise etc to work effectively towards improvements."

Li Qiang of China Labor Watch told In These Times that when corporations ostensibly cooperate with outside monitoring groups as "partners," it's still "difficult for the reports to be completely independent and absolutely objective. So some problems may still remain hidden even after signing up to the monitoring system." Qiang added that while these measures were a good step:

"Whether this is a turning point for Apple is still open to doubt. As we all know, Apple is one of the biggest in the industry and it has the most profits. That's why Apple should take more responsibility and take the lead to make some changes. If Apple does not, no one in the industry will."

With relentless efficiency, Apple's brand has broadened the horizons of the digital world. But now it has to confront the injustices lurking in the shadows of its corporate dominion.

Cross-posted from In These Times.

 
 
 

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