How Apple can transform Foxconn's iPhone factories

The wave of suicides among workers at Apple partner Foxconn cannot be  excused by shallow comparisons of meaningless statistics -- not when a company has become as central to the public eye as Apple is today.

Apple leads the online news agenda online in a big, big way. Twitter discussions about Apple accounted for an astonishing 51 per cent of Twitter links posted in the week May 24-28.

The iPhone maker has been the most discussed Twitter topic in eight different weeks of the year so far.

Apple is the news beat

The level of attention seen last week (May 24-28) was the highest yet, beating the previous 37 per cent record set in the week of April 19-23, a report explains.

Discussions of Wired magazine's iPad edition and news that Apple last week exceeded Microsoft as the world's largest tech company in terms of market cap all over the service, as explained by The New Media Index.

A behind-the-scenes look at how Pixar made Toy Story 3 was the second biggest tale on Twitter, accounting for 8% of traffic. As we know, Jobs was CEO of Pixar before selling it to Disney.

A further 5% of Twitter traffic came from discussions concerning the Foxconn iPhone factory and the suicide wave among unhappy, bored, overworked and underpaid workers there.

This means Apple or Apple-related discussion accounted for an astonishing 64 per cent of all Twitter traffic last week.

To a better future

Apple's position at the center of the tech industry limelight is precisely why the suicide problem at Foxconn must not be ignored or explained away with statistical irrelevance. It must be -- publically -- resolved.

It is (I feel distatesfully) irrelevant how Foxconn’s suicide rate compares to China’s national average. For a full explanation as to why, I’d recommend this from Dan Lyons (aka, Fake Steve), who notes that “Jumpers are trying to tell you something”.

He adds, “Consider this. Walmart has 1.4 million employees in the United States. Can you remember a time when 10 or 15 Walmart workers jumped to their deaths from the roofs of Walmart stores over the course of a few months?”

Ultimately it is all about working conditions. Recent news of a pay rise for Foxconn employees is nice, but financial reward is only part of the equation.

What do we need?

Take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This clearly shows you that money is only part of the deal to make someone happy and fulfilled when working.

Employees also need friendship and social contact. They need self-esteem, they need personal growth.

How does anyone expect to get this from working in incredibly repetitive jobs for 12-hours per day inside factory complexes?

Sure -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs may have seen the shops and swimming pools, but after a 12-hour working day swimming isn’t going to be for anything but exercise; with $130 per month to spend (most of which is sent home) the shops aren’t going to be about retail therapy.

Life at Foxconn just isn’t fulfilling enough. Take a look at this Bloomberg report, where worker Ah Wei explains, “Life is meaningless,” adding, “Every day, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time.”

There’s no conversation on the production line, bathroom breaks are 10 minutes every two hours and workers endure constant noise. Some complaint of a heavy-handed management style.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs this week said he was bothered by the suicide wave, promising, “We’re all over this

I hope Apple is all over this.

Sure, in order for workers to enjoy better conditions we may have to pay a little more, but let’s face it, worker costs are slim in contrast to component and general assembly costs.

And money’s only part of what’s required.

More than money

Why not just let the workers relax a little more? Let them talk on the production lines, let them form relationships, create networks. Real social networks with real people, laughing, and crying together.

That will help foster a sense of belonging, psychologists say. This will make a huge difference in the suicide risk.

Foxconn could change people’s jobs from time-to-time. Find ways to make the production line less repetitive. Encourage a softer management style.

Apple could even take a leaf from Google’s book, and urge all Foxconn employees get paid time off for personal improvement -- art, reading, study -- anything to encourage self-worth and self-realization among factory workers.

A few steps could transform Foxconn’s now battered reputation into something quite different.

Look to history to understand the future

Apple and Foxconn could develop a new worker-focused way of working, designed to foster the most positive, loyal and productive workforce on the planet.

(Foxconn could become the Chinese equivalent of Port Sunlight. An early -- and extremely influential -- attempt to improve the lives of workers in 19th Century England).

Given Apple’s place at the center of the news agenda it could use these tragic events to transform workers rights in China.

Now I’m not going to disrespect Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou. He’s done well. Really well. He founded his company with $7,500 in 1974, and has built it up into one of the biggest firms in the world. Well done.

He does high quality work for low prices, Bloomberg tells us.

“Foxconn won Apple’s order to make the iPhone after Gou ordered the business units that make components to sell parts at zero profit,” the report states.

Parent group Hon Hai Precision had an operating margin of 4.3 percent last year, compared with 27 percent for Apple.

The Hierarchy of Needs tells us money isn’t enough to stop the suicides.

Even after the recent 30 per cent pay hike, one worker tells Bloomberg, “I do the same thing every day; I feel empty inside. I have no future.”

Perhaps Apple should use that power to set new gold standards for worker rights, as it already aims to achieve with its environmental attempt.

I'm aware of Apple's strict code of practice for employees of its suppliers, but reading it shows us there's a lot of work to do until everyone meets these goals.

Apple sets the news agenda.

Lets make that count.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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