Protestors target Apple retail in demand for worker rights

By Jonny Evans

The campaign against sweat shop working conditions inside some Apple [AAPL] partner factories is both laudable and ill-placed. You have to welcome any attempt to improve the lot of those who manufacture our forests of cheap consumer goods; but campaigners are failing to address the situation of workers inside factories linked to every other member of the consumer electronics industry.

Life beyond Apple

Naturally, Apple is a target for these complaints. It's one of the world's richest and most powerful companies, and given the passive aggressive moralizing which seems to define debate today, that means it is apparently required to "set a good example". The thing is -- it does. And, while I think we have a long, long way to go until we get to live in a world governed by fairness, tolerance and understanding, and that Apple has a way to go before it reaches its stated goal of becoming a poster child for fair working practices, the company has begun that journey.

A group of campaigners will today deliver over a quarter of a million signatures from campaigns on Change.org  and SumOfUs.org to Apple's Grand Central Station, NYC location demanding it respond to recent criticisms of worker abuse in its supplier factories. Eager for a headline protestors will also demand an "ethical iPhone 5".

Can anyone see what's wrong with this picture?

[ABOVE: Heavy metal...]

Ethics must be universal

When every smartphone maker is occupied in a race to the bottom, competing on features and price in an industry presently defined by just one OS other than Apple's iOS, surely it's reasonably self-evident that every other smartphone isn't yet ethical?

If Apple responds to its critics and creates an ethical smartphone, then will consumers be ready to pay the price? If there's a true demand for ethical manufacturing, then a universal standard needs to be applied transparently across the entire industry, not just against Apple.

That's the crux of the matter. You can keep all the eulogizing over worker's rights -- take a look around your own home town, and you'll find people working in terrible conditions for low pay, do you see their plight? -- you can keep all the paeans to fractured glory, all the cries to free the workers from their steel restraints.

Without an agreed ethical standard, you might as well place all these plaintive pleas inside an echo chamber, because until consumers prove themselves ready to pay more for the products they desire, then even if Apple goes ethical there will be plenty of other firms who won't.

Beyond the iPhone factories

All these things are connected. Globalization has already happened. Where do you draw the line? Do protesters fight for the plight of raw materials miners working in dangerous and unpleasant conditions across the planet? Do protesters demand ethical oil production?

The campaign against Apple may well be the start of something, but first protesters need to recognize that the big picture is far larger, involving a whole ecosystem of firms making use of low-paid labor to exploit raw materials and to fashion those into the myriad components which sit inside every consumer electronics device. Exploitation is the engine of capitalism and very few of us get to sit at  the top table.

This isn't to say these things aren't important. I'm not sure many of us can sit happily playing with our electronics devices without feeling a little uncomfortable that somewhere far away someone might have died as a result of breathing in chemicals while buffing-up the metal.

What activists are missing is that Apple currently leads the consumer electronics industry in terms of checking its manufacturing partners out for sticking to a code of conduct for worker treatment.

This year's company Supplier Report set a new gold standard for transparency, but by targeting the company on strength of what it has voluntarily disclosed, activists are -- perhaps without realizing it -- giving all the many less caring companies carte blanche to keep the results of their supplier audits under wraps. "After all," others think, "Apple was open and look what happened to that company. We'll say nothing and leave things as they are."

Everything or nothing

I'm hoping that after protesters get over their love for Apple-related headlines they extend their campaign to include other CE manufacturers, and demand the same as or better levels of working conditions reporting as Cupertino already supplies. I think many Android device purchasers or PC buyers would be in for an ugly surprise, once we had that kind of oversight.

Laptop Magazine has a good report, citing Labor Activist Li Qiang. An iPhone owner, the activist freely acknowledges that Apple is "doing a better job of monitoring factory conditions than its peers." That's pretty good, coming from the founder of leading advocacy group China Labor Watch.

"Although I know that the iPhone 4 is made at sweat shop factories in China, I still think that this is the only choice, because Apple is actually one of the best," he said. "Actually before I made a decision, I compared Apple with other cell phone companies, such as Nokia...and the conditions in those factories are worse than the ones of Apple."

Take a little time to actually read Apple's Supplier Responsibility Report rather than in cherishing the anti-Apple rhetoric and you get a picture of what working conditions are like across the industry. Standard features that make your consumer products cheap include:

  • Involuntary labor
  • Underage labor
  • Lack of protective gear
  • Poor emergency planning
  • Long hours
  • Explosions

Dell and HP also admit to similar failings, but refuse to be specific. Are either of these firms being targeted? Is Nokia? Though both the former companies are prepared to talk to a wider church of labor representatives than Apple.

People, profits, or cheap consumer goods. It's your decision

Li Qiang: "Although we think Apple is among the best in terms of auditing, we still think that Apple can do more because it is the most profitable company in the world. As soon as Apple is willing to give a small percentage of its profits, the workers can benefit a lot. But Apple is not willing to do that."

The crux of the matter is that if you care about labor rights and working conditions then you have to be prepared to spend more on the products you use. That's inevitable. If you want ethical products you'll need to pay an ethics dividend.

Later on today, over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition will be delivered to Apple retail stores in  Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, London, Sydney, and Bangalore, all asking Apple to improve its commitment to worker protection. If each of those signatories reached into their pocket and pulled out ten dollars, think what difference that could make to the estimated million workers who occupy Apple's supply chain.

Apple meanwhile continues to diligently do more than anyone else to gradually achieve the same end. In a company-wide email, CEO Tim Cook said: "Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain. As we reported earlier this month, we've made a great deal of progress and improved conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers."

He began his email: "We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It's not who we are."

It is, however, who Apple's competitors currently are. And it's time campaigners bought the fight for fair working conditions against Apple's competitors, too.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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