By Ilene Hoffman on 1/31/12

Commentary: Apple in China and Where We Get Our News

I wanted to write about the specific troubles in Apple’s manufacturing facilities in China for today’s commentary, but then I thought: To what end? What will beating this live horse of an issue help? Instead I find myself more interested in commenting on how the story was publicized. I know I was disappointed when Apple chose to take their manufacturing to foreign shores about 10 years ago, but I didn’t stop buying the products. I bet you didn’t either. While Apple has tried to investigate the worker complaints and problems at foreign plants for at least four years, it seems little progress has been made to end worker abuse. You can see Tim Cook’s response to the newest problem reports in a letter first published on 9 to 5 Mac on January 26. The letter is in direct response to a rather extensive exposé on the problems in the New York Times on January 25. The troubling aspect of the issues to me arise from the fact that reports have been seeping into the US about these problem for a few years before the New York Times published their story. Problems were cited for years. Everyone claims that information is so readily available all over the Internet, yet it still takes a traditional media giant like the New York Times to engage most consumers. It seems Apple started investigating complaints at least five years ago, but has not impacted the factories in question as yet. So, the issue then becomes why did Apple wait until it became a major newspaper story before they addressed the problem publicly with a staff memo and pages on their web site. Plus, why did it take the New York Times to activate outrage from consumers?
I suppose in some respects, the poor reporting of the issues by some of the new media heighten my dismay. For example, The Daily Beast states: “When The New York Times blew the lid off of terrible workplace standards at Chinese tech manufacturing factories, … these tweeters decided it was time to say, ‘iQuit.'” In fact, The New York Times didn’t blow the lid off the story, they just published a rather lengthy account of the story that has been available on other media sites for a couple of years. In addition, because of the NYT reports, The Daily Beast goes on to say that 18 people tweeted they would boycott Apple. If they’d done a bit more research, they would have found many more people who are now reluctant to buy and possibly boycotting Apple products in comments found on forums in numerous sites.
This is a multifaceted issue, that not only deals with manufacturing abuse and selected ignorance on our part by ignoring stories on less acclaimed news sites. It also highlights the cultural problems presented by creating products in a different economic system in another country.
The question remains, does what you have read about the workers’ experiences in Apple’s manufacturing plants in China affect your purchasing plans? Do you have faith that Apple will be able to solve the problems and continue to manufacture products according to our work standards? Just what is our responsibility in making sure, in this global economy, that other countries adhere to work ethics of which we approve or are we naive to expect a different culture to buy into our high (moral and humane) standards?


12 Responses to “Apple in China and Where We Get Our News”

  1. Kirk Talon says:

    I think Apple is enjoying their ability to get near slave labor results with these people just a little too much.

  2. Tom Abbott says:

    I have heard stories like this for years now and not just with Apple. As you are aware tons of stuff is made in China. It’s hard to buy anything that isn’t made in China. I’m being a master of the obvious here, I know. The question I have is can I avoid China with electronics purchases? I needed a new laptop and decided to go with a Mac for the first time. If I would have stayed with PC and purchased a Dell or HP or the like would I have done any better? I don’t know.

    I don’t mean to make light of this and say, “Oh well, I can’t avoid buying from China” so I may as well not worry about it. I wish the workers weren’t treated so poorly, but oh well, what am I going to do?” There must be a way.

    I think if I had to do it all over again I would have bought a 2 or 3 year old PC and loaded up Linux. I did this with another older computer in our house and it works just fine. I’m not missing a beat on anything with it.

  3. slaws says:

    Here are links to a couple of articles on Forbes.com that should help to provide some perspective on the conditions at Foxconn. Keep in mind you are discussing the labor practices of a country that until recently was considered part of the Third World. For the million or so workers at Foxconn the work, work conditions, and wages are better than the alternatives available to them, which is why they choose to work where they do. Also, look to Japan and South Korea to see what will happen over time as workers in China come to demand more. It wasn’t so long ago those countries were where China is today.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/01/29/the-apple-boycott-people-are-spouting-nonsense-about-chinese-manufacturing/

    &

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/01/30/the-apple-boycott-graphically-explained/

    • ileneh says:

      Slaws, I’ve also posted a number of companion articles to my commentary on my new blog. This includes a link to a report on Human Rights in China and U.S. Policy, plus articles from Forbes, New York Times, the Guardian, and others.
      http://ilenesmachine.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/apple-in-china/

    • Hazel says:

      Really? You are using Forbes as an unbiased news source. I think not. Forbes is all capitalism all the time. They would find a way to justify beheadings. Besides the whole issue is way too complicated, but it was US companies that decided to take ADVANTAGE of near slavery conditions to maximize their profits. They buy low and sell HIGH to us, while the US slowly becomes a land of the rich and poor to very poor. Get real.

  4. ileneh says:

    By the way, that Forbes graphic URL results in a 404. I don’t know why it was taken down or if the link is just bad. I did find a working link here:
    http://www.keruff.com/post/16756978859/the-apple-boycott-graphically-explained

  5. Scott says:

    I think what people are willfully ignoring is that these are Chinese companies, owned by Chinese people, that do business with MANY U.S. corporations that choose to do business with them. Painting them as Apple’s manufacturing plants fits nicely into the type of box our little anglo brains love so much, but it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of companies need to push hard for change for it to happen.

    BTW, someone sent me a comment about this situation in Singapore, and what happened was that they started cleaning things up and a lot of people subsequently lost their jobs. I guess the question is, how do we make change without making things worse or as bad, just in a different way?

    The American media likes simplicity because apparently that’s what we’ve become, but in reality it’s not as simple as it’s portrayed. You’re talking about dealing with massive societal change in a foreign country, and expecting Apple to be the one in charge of that?

    Don’t think so.

  6. Iam says:

    Well, we know that Apple products are the only things made in China that are sold in the US. So, by boycotting Apple we will make a difference in our feelings of righteousness.

  7. ileneh says:

    Hazel, I never said Forbes was an unbiased source.
    Scott, I think you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for all your comments.

  8. Josh says:

    Of course the issue is more complex than your average US media likes to deal with. There’s an excellent treatment of the question at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/454/mr-daisey-and-the-apple-factory. Act 1 is an excellent rendition of the accusations, while Act 2 shines an intelligent, critical light on Act 1. One particularly interesting voice is Niholas Kristof, an advocate for the poor of the world if ever there was one, who argues (as you do, @slaws), that sweatshops are an unfortunate stage in economic development, and are better for the workers than the alternatives.

    It does make me uncomfortable though, that Apple is making record profits in part by minimizing production expenses at the expense of the workers. The answer is to keep the media spotlight shining — however simplistically — to pressure Apple to pressure its subcontractors to meet minimum acceptable standards. I would also like Apple to be a bit more transparent about what they’re doing — not just by issuing carefully prepared statements and reports, but by answering reporters’ questions.

  9. Mr Anthony Cotton says:

    I think i wrote a about this before. Apple part`s are made in Vietnam,Malaysia,and Thailand.Then shipped to China to be assembled. Then shipped to Europe,and USA. This was in a documentary i watched,and the late Steve Jobs new about this.It was reported to the Human Rights Commission that about 4 were killed by deadly toxic fumes,but they were just replaced. China ignored this. One worker received wages that could not keep him and his family for a month. Microsoft also get some of their parts made there. Bottom Line Apple made $1,000,000,000 this period witch has been reported.

  10. Michael Wheless says:

    I have spent a good portion of my adult life in Asia. I am not an academic, a politician or member of any charitable organization. Thus, my views are basically that of a “stranger in a strange land”. What has always been common for me, is to see a way of doing things, and then compare that to what I know about my western concepts of right and wrong. The longer I live here, the more I am aware my ideas are based upon a distant cousin of right and wrong. In fact, things that appear so wrong to me, are quite right for the culture in which they exist. In Korea, for example, there is a concept concerning business called chaebol. This concept extends downward to the individual and it causes them to support an industry (corporation) in the same way they would support their family (clan). In practical terms, it means and endless series of back scratches between individuals in how they conduct their business (you scratch mine…..). In the Philippines, after years of being considered a Little Brown Brother by their occupiers, a way to break free from these outside influences included using corrupt practices to get business to flourish. As this gets down to the individual, it ends up being a lifetime of drudgery for some in order to keep food on the table. It’s a very easy thing to be critical of the ways people are treated here. But even as people are being paid wages a westerner would never tolerate, there are many waiting to get those jobs. I applaud individuals who feel that some sort of boycott would be a good way to force western-based corporations to toe the line. Sadly, it is hardly likely to make any difference in the lives of those individuals in Asia who are affected by the boycott. Thanks Gary, for giving me a forum to voice my view.

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