Apple Lifts the Curtain on Chinese Labor and Environmental Manufacturing Practices

Employee protests at Apple supplier Foxconn have raised attention to the issue of employment conditions in China. Apple has reacted decisively, engaging the Fair Labor Association to conduct labor conditions audits, and negotiating to allow the environmental watchdog NRDC to access Apple supplier factories.

The involvement of third party and NGO organizations in the audit process will significantly increase the transparency of Chinese workplaces. What can and should we expect to see?

It is not such an easy question for global corporations doing business in countries experiencing rapid economic and technological growth. On the one hand, the health, safety and environmental standards of large corporations have lead the way to improved practices. On the other hand, questions of wage equity, employee abuses, and environmental disasters plague the outsourcing of jobs to countries with cheap labor.

Some Views from the Ground in China

Audits at global factories committed to high standards of employee welfare can still find issues such as a well-trained workforce using safety equipment to handle hazardous chemicals while the contract janitorial service employees work nearby, sponging floors or sorting hazardous waste while wearing only shorts and flip-flops. Chinese culture values deference; employees who do not assert their rights or point out such inconsistencies may not signal oppression by management as an auditor might conclude in another culture.

Or chemicals stored in cabinets just like the best safety equipment engineered in Germany -- until the auditor opens the door to find not much more than a high school locker fitted out to appear externally as flame-proof and explosion proof. Most probably the equipment was engineered locally from the picture in a competitor’s brochure.

A respected German contractor building factories in China once told me he had learned from experience that he could introduce only one new safety culture concept per week. To expect a safety culture to spring up after two weeks of intensive training defies reason.

He mentioned that many workers even resisted western ideas: for example, construction workers accustomed to two-dimensional bamboo scaffolding, where safety depends upon alertness and self-control, may feel insulted when their exceptional skills are demeaned with three-dimensional steel scaffolds and fall safety belts.

It should be emphasized that none of these examples relates to Apple or Foxconn. They reflect anecdotes from some years back, and a major company like Foxconn can be expected to have succeeded in implementing an excellent safety culture -- as is evidenced by the fact that third party audits are open for negotiation. But hopefully these stories help put the news that follows Apple's renewed engagement with their supply chain in perspective.

Risks and Rewards

Media reports show workers repeating excruciatingly detailed tasks for 6-hour stretches, returning after a two hour lunch to repeat another 6-hour stretch -- all for a starting wage reported to be $1.78/hour.

Reports inculpate Foxconn management for an aluminum dust explosion with fatalities and serious injuries as consequences. But Western factories continue to be plagued by combustible dust explosions, one of the most difficult safety issues in modern safety programs now that most "routine" causes of once common explosions have been eliminated by improved safety engineering.

The queues of people lined up for jobs at Foxconn suggest that local opinions consider the rewards proportionate to the risk. The reaction of management to accidents like the dust explosion indicate they take seriously their responsibility to avoid such tragedy.

What Can Be Done?

As Apple, and other companies, seek to raise the curtain on life in the supply chain for consumer goods coveted in wealthier lands, we may be shocked by what we see. But we must remember that Ohio's Cuyahoga river caught fire, and we ourselves have become slaves to the machines we think serve us.

  • We should look for signs that workers have rights to negotiate in their own best interests, and power to associate with those whose interests match their own.
  • We should show our willingness to support a fair supply chain with both our voices and our wallets.

  • We should look for audits. Audits excel at closing the gap between expectations and actual performance. Audits communicate management's commitment walking their talk.

  • We should look for transparency. Even in the face of questions about the true independence of certification bodies that are paid by the companies they audit, making audit results public demonstrates that there is not much (nothing is a big word) to hide.

What Cannot Be Done

Should Chinese employees engaged in repetitive manual labor be replaced by robots to save them the stresses? A hue and cry against the unemployment would fill the air. People do these jobs because China has people who need jobs.

Do worker dormitories signify slave-like abuses, or does this represent an economy in rapid transition from farming-village populations to high-tech city dwellers? Does the young age of workers at Foxconn represent burn out, or a population that has earned enough to quit and raise a family of their own?

Before we judge, we must seek to understand.

Finally, we should remember: we can work to minimize abuses, but should not presume to stand in the way of progress because perfection is sought.

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