Protesters Confront Apple Over Foxconn Conditions

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In what appear to be unrelated acts of protest against Apple following news reports about unacceptable work conditions at Apple suppliers such as Foxconn, a group of protesters delivered petitions to Apple stores and a group of hackers leaked the passwords and usernames of Foxconn's entire staff.

Petitions for Change

Change.org (>250,000 signatures) and SumOfUs.org (>50,000 signatures) teamed up to deliver petitions on Thursday to Apple's new Grand Central store in New York, as well as Apple stores in Washington D.C., San Francisco, London, Sydney, and Bangalore (which raises the question: why not in Taiwan, home of Foxconn or China, where Foxconn is the largest private employer?).

Consumer pressure will keep Apple motivated, but the fact is that the petitions enter the fray of one of the most difficult issues sustainability managers face. Although Foxconn employees reportedly earn only 1 miserable dollar per miserable hour, that wage represents a huge improvement in the standard of living for many Asians who have migrated to take such jobs. International companies cannot simply raise wages to levels inconsistent with the local labor markets without causing market disruptions that will cause pain in other sectors.

Trading Life and Limb, rather than Labor, for a Wage

Similarly, Apple (and Amazon, and Microsoft, and Sony, and Nintendo, and all the other electronics concerns supplied by the giant Foxconn) cannot completely control the working conditions at Foxconn factories. But conditions must be raised to meet international labor protection standards. It is one thing to agree to work for a wage that is low by some standards but desirable locally; it should not be expected that our fellow earthlings must trade their health or life, in addition to their labor, to earn that wage.

China has worker protection laws meeting international standards on the books, but lax enforcement fails to keep major revenue sources like Foxconn in line. Change can occur only due to internal commitments by Foxconn, verified by customers like Apple, or third-party auditors like the Fair Labor Association (appointed by Apple to audit Foxconn in the wake of recent news).

Consumers Driving Change

More than Apple's sustainability commitments or supply chain audits, media and consumer reactions do drive improvement. In this sense, Change.org and SumOfUs.org have delivered a message that will reach the highest echelons of Apple, Foxconn, and other companies in similar positions.

Consumers willing to pay more for products produced under strictly audited workplace safety and sustainability criteria also remain critical to the equation. Apple consumers are accustomed to paying a bit more for gadgets from a company that is "supposed to think different," in the words of Mark Shields, the initiator of the petition at Change.org. They buy the right to expect that their consumer dollar supports a better supply system, and they will not quickly turn a blind eye when guilt overwhelms the pleasures of their i-gadget.

Hackers Plan for Foxconn to "Crumble"

According to a report in The Guardian, a group calling itself Swagg Security "took aim at Foxconn in an anonymous letter" which included the statement "Your company gonna' crumble, and you deserve it." As petitioners lined up at Apple stores to demand improvements, Swagg Security publicized their hack on Twitter.

The information released allegedly could be used to place fraudulent purchase orders in the names of large Foxconn clients. Foxconn shut down the affected server and removed websites detailing services provided to clients.

Tags: Apple Inc | Corporate Responsibility | Jobs | Poverty | Social Networking

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