Apple is in the spotlight, yet again, due in large part to their increased visibility and ongoing (astronomical) success in a down market.
Scrutiny comes with the territory: A few years ago, Greenpeace made a habit of highlighting Apple's "green score" to drive awareness about toxic chemicals in our consumer devices in spite of the fact that Apple had been a green leader, at least in comparison to many of their industry peers.
Apple in a headline draws in readers. If your cause could use a little juice: Squeezing Apple can't hurt.
The latest dustup concerns factory conditions and workplace safety in China. Apple is one of just about every company anywhere which utilizes Chinese labor -- specifically, an independent company called Foxconn -- to manufacture its products. Do some digging about your phone (regardless of who made it) and you'll discover that if it wasn't manufactured by a group of workers at Foxconn, it was likely made elsewhere in China, or by a similar operation in another country that isn't the United States.
Recently, the New York Times posted two exposés highlighting Apple's partnership with Foxconn and the reaction and backlash has been loud and swift.
Leaving aside the fact that it's very easy to sign a petition -- several have popped up, with a range of demands -- indicating that you're appalled, or that you would (gladly!) pay a large premium for a device manufactured in a safer environment, or (even better) in the United States, or that you'll never buy another Apple product again, let's face it:
Most people aren't going to back that bluster up with any real action.
When the iPhone 5 is released, it will have been manufactured by Foxconn workers and it will sell like hotcakes and even if you signed one of those petitions, there's a pretty good chance that you'll buy one. Perhaps you'll flog yourself in your bedroom, with the shades drawn, tears streaming down your face. Maybe you'll even use it to tweet your anger and threats.
That's the reality.
Now, let's assume that every person who is now promising to never buy another Apple product is dead serious, and that Apple has the choice of seeing a major drop in sales or magically fixing China's problems.
One popular demand is that Apple should pack up and bring its manufacturing back to the good ol' US of A and rah! rah! their way to success and continued profit because, well: Everyone loves a patriot! God bless America!
It's one thing to demand it, it's quite another to have a realistic proposal for how it could actually happen.
(The first article published by the New York TImes is largely about why this isn't a particularly realistic short- or even medium-term goal.)
The far more popular point of view, it seems, is that Apple has a moral obligation to improve the lot in life for Chinese factory workers, if they're going to manufacture there. This sentiment is based on what was reported in the second New York Times article.
Indeed, it's not a very pleasant read.
Perhaps a boycott of Apple's products would make us all feel a bit better about ourselves, but -- what's the alternative? Whose product will we turn to? Which product is it that is produced in factories either 1) in the US or 2) in China but that have better working conditions than Foxconn?
If the demand is that Apple pull out of China completely, because "those poor workers deserve better" what evidence is there that Apple's departure would actually improve the lives of those poor workers?
The evidence, in fact, is that the average production worker in China makes $4500 every year whereas Foxconn workers make $6000 every year. This probably explains why thousands of men and women will line up for the chance to work at Foxconn.
Around 200,000 workers at Foxconn (1 in 4, approximately) work on Apple's products. Assuming Apple packs up and leaves, that's 200,000 people who are either 1) suddenly unemployed or 2) forced to (maybe) work somewhere else for even less money, likely under even worse conditions, with far less scrutiny -- because they're not assembling products for one of the most visible companies in the world.
The evidence is also that (per million workers) 18 Foxconn workers have committed suicide whereas the national average in china is 220.
Assuming Apple packs up and leaves, 200,000 people are suddenly unemployed, or they're working somewhere else, and the likelihood that they commit suicide actually goes up, not down: In China, you're less likely to commit suicide if you take a job at Foxconn!
Please don't read any of this and assume that I believe working at Foxconn is a good job, under our standards, or even a good job, under China's cruddy standards. On the other hand, it's better to work at Foxconn than it is to work most production jobs in China, by a pretty wide margin.
More to the point, there's a pretty good chance that working conditions at Foxconn are better precisely because of the exposure and scrutiny Apple's success and prominence is bringing to the table. There's a reason why Dell, Microsoft and (pick virtually any other device manufacturer) are keeping quiet about all of this, rather than highlighting Apple's woes to boost their own images: They're not in a position to.
Which begs the question: Is it responsible to boycott Apple?
Is it "better for the workers" to demand that Apple pull out of China or stop doing business with Foxconn?
The evidence seems to be that these demands would hurt chinese laborers more than they would help.
There's a huge difference between reacting and being reactionary. I firmly believe that being more informed about Apple's relationship with Foxconn -- and working conditions in China in general -- is the best way to ensure that we react appropriately, which can then lead to incremental steps to ensure better conditions for China's production workers over time.
Here's a link to a Stephen Fry tweet (and infographic) which illustrates (and informs) the points I'm making here: Stephen Fry on Foxconn, China, and Apple
Statistics are pulled from this Forbes article: The Apple Boycott: People are Spouting Nonsense about Chinese Manufacturing