There have been two recent reports that paint Apple in a damning light when it comes to caring about the health and well-being of the workers that build its products. One concerns the long-term hiring practices of Apple’s factory partners (partly driven by Apple’s own demands), while the other touches on China’s abuse of the million or so Uyghurs currently held in internment camps.
First, a new report based on interviews with four Apple employees documents how the company was alarmed by a 2014 Chinese bill strengthening worker protections, and requiring that no more than 10 percent of a factory’s labor force consist of temporary workers. Apple surveyed 362 supplier factories and found nearly half were over this quota, while 80 of them used temp workers for more than half their labor force.
Apple (and Chinese law) both requested that its suppliers address this situation by 2016. When the numbers had barely changed by 2016, Apple stopped making noise about it “out of concerns it would create costs, drain resources and delay product launches.”
But the problem goes deeper than that. According to The Information:
The former employees, as well as a review of internal Apple presentations and the company’s own data on factory hiring between 2013 and 2018, suggests that Apple’s strategy for managing its supply chain made it difficult for its three biggest contract manufacturers — Foxconn Technology, Quanta Computer and Pegatron — to remain compliant with the labor restrictions. The issue surfaced again publicly last year when Apple admitted that Foxconn had broken the law at its massive iPhone factory in Zhengzhou, which can employ as many as 300,000 workers. Apple says it requires suppliers to abide by local laws and pledges to remove those that won’t comply.
The Craven Cowardice of Apple’s ‘Courage’
As for the second report, recall that according to Apple Fellow Phil Schiller, showing courage means taking action that may not be popular — like, say, removing a headphone jack. We’ve mocked Apple for years over the clueless, tone-deaf on-stage moment, but now that this new information has surfaced, I’m wondering if we got the whole story wrong. Maybe the reason Schiller associated “courage” with “stripping features off a product” is because that’s the best example Apple’s policies left him able to give without instantly dying onstage from an acute case of hypocrisy.
Courage isn’t taking a feature off a phone. Courage is telling your investors to get bent because you aren’t interested in funding human rights abuses masquerading as employment.
But that would be too much for Apple — a company so concerned with keeping its labor costs down that it has lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a bill that requires companies to guarantee they don’t work with foreign companies that employ slave labor. Apple claims that it’s against slave labor and that it will cut ties with any supplier that engages in such practices. Apple has also previously said it upheld all Chinese labor laws, and that it cut ties with suppliers who failed to follow these practices, yet the company remains tethered to Foxconn at the hip.
The hubris — and cynicism — of this behavior would be staggering if 2020 hadn’t served up such bumper crops of both. Over the past four years, Apple has dramatically jacked up the price of repairs for many devices. It introduced devices that cost far more to fix off-warranty and lied about how easy it was to bend the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It raised the price of AppleCare, raised the price of non-warrantied repairs to the stratosphere in some cases, and showed zero interest in designing its products for easy repair.
The much-hated MacBook butterfly keyboard requires a $600 replacement part because even Apple’s own technicians can’t just replace one key — or even just the keyboard. The company eventually created a free repair program, but only after months of high-profile complaints and problems. Any concern Apple had about “creating costs” clearly didn’t stop the company from gleefully creating a ton of costs for other people. It is, apparently, inconceivable to Apple’s corporate leadership that Tim Cook should make an announcement like this:
“At Apple, we care enough about human rights to make certain our products aren’t literally being built by slaves. In fact, we want to make certain that our partners’ workforces are well-paid and happy. After an audit revealed that many of our partners were in violation of Chinese labor laws, and had been for years, we fired them. Partners who were unable to guarantee they wouldn’t use Uyghur slave labor in the construction of our products have similarly been replaced. As a result, the next iPhone will be delayed by 6-9 months while we create a new supply chain with companies willing to help us uphold higher standards in China, the United States, or anywhere across the world.”
That would be courage.