Apple owes much of its extraordinary success to an uncanny ability to stay one step ahead of consumers’ expectations. Now, some customers have a new demand: ethical iPads.
The hi-tech giant must show it takes the labour conditions of those who toil in its overseas supply chain partners as seriously as it takes the nifty design of new products. Otherwise, the company risks harming its brand.
The company’s recent decision to become the first hi-tech company to join the Fair Labour Association is laudable. While critics question the independence of the association, which was founded in 1999 by universities and advocacy groups, there is no doubt it has helped end labour abuse in factories El Salvador, and other countries in Latin America and Asia. Labour inspectors have begun entering mammoth plants as FoxConn city in Chengdu and Shenzhen, China, where iPads and iPhones are assembled. Workers there have long complained of 12-hour shifts, crowded living conditions and excessive overtime. In 2010, there was a rash of suicides.
Last week’s protests organized by watchdog groups SumOfUs and Change.org at Apple stores around the world regarding the health, safety and environmental conditions inside these factories brought the issue to the fore. The groups also delivered petitions signed by more than 250,000 people. One former Apple executive told the New York Times: “Most people would be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”
Apple already has a supplier code of conduct with detailed standards on labour issues and safety protections, and also publishes its own annual audits of suppliers. Last month for the first time, it made public its list of suppliers.
However, the company must take more responsibility for enforcing its own manufacturing standards. Changing the workplace culture at overseas suppliers without sacrificing quotas and profits will be a challenge. But it is also an opportunity. Through its own example, Apple could inspire industry-wide change. Public outcry and advocacy campaigns forced Gap, Nike and other apparel companies to end workplace abuse, including the firing of pregnant women, in Latin America in the 1990s.
Apple doesn’t want to be associated with foreign workers who are so despondent they would rather jump out their dorm window than assemble another iPhone 5. Instead, it has a chance to be a transformational leader and inspire other blue-chip hi-tech companies to take labour violations in China and elsewhere more seriously.