Giving Apple a fair bite

Make IT FairTomorrow is Make IT Fair’s day of action, focusing on working conditions in Apple Computers’ supply chain.

Apple are the target here as they subcontract most of the work in making their hugely popular iPhones, and they don’t seem to be too fussy about how the work gets done.

A big source of iPhone ingredients are Chinese manufacturers Foxconn. Foxconn make enormous chunks of everyone’s IT (I’m writing this on a PC built around one of their motherboards and probably containing other stuff they’ve worked on), in their city-sized production facilities, where employees work and live.

Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour produced a landmark report last year, where researchers bravely got jobs in Foxconn, to document life inside the beast first-hand. They found a world where corporal punishment of employees was commonplace, and punitive overwork for extremely low pay the norm. What had grabbed the headlines though was a spate of suicides in the worker dormitories, as people pushed to the edge found nowhere else to go.

The company’s attempts to reform the situation were risible, aimed mostly at saving face rather than demonstrating real concern for their workforce. For example they set up a ‘trade union’, but installed the company’s own head of PR as its manager. And there was their attempt to get workers to sign pledges not to commit suicide – firmly one for the “you couldn’t make it up” file.

Steve Jobs famously claimed to be “all over” the issue, and wages did indeed rise for some – though it was hard to find people who’d got anything near as much as had been promised, and it mostly seemed to be performance related pay – hardly a sensible way to address the issue of overwork and stress.

Mr Jobs has his work cut out though, in that research seems to be showing Foxconn is hardly an isolated incident. At similarly ubiquitous manufacturer Wintek (I’m writing to you through one of their networking cards), workers clean iPhone screens not with alcohol, but with the faster-evaporating chemical N-Hexane, which incidentally is a nerve agent. A journalist’s investigation found the nearby hospital had treated dozens of severely poisoned Wintek employees.

And other suppliers seem to be at it as well, this worrying video naming many suppliers confirmed and suspected as providing Apple with hardware, at the expense of their own workers’ health and that of the environment.

I’ve been looking into the issue of abusive smartphone component manufacturers in recent months, as a concerned customer, and not getting tremendously far with corporate PR and customer services departments. My dilemna is that I’d like to upgrade my old HTC Touch HD, but all the replacement candidates are tarred with similar problems.

Samsung’s Galaxy S2 is looking like the best bet so far, even though they’ve got their own allegations of widespread serious industrial injuries through using chemicals dropped by more reputable manufacturers. HTC’s Touch HD 2 (and I believe LG’s Optimus) rely on union-busting, safety-shirking, forced overtimers and alleged child labour profiteering outsourcers Young Fast Optoelectronics, and refuse to engage publically on why their supplier seem to be flaunting their own codes of conduct, which is a considerable bad mark against them.

Apple’s iPhone 4 seems to have the worst corporate responsibility issues, though ironically the company are the only one I’ve found who¬† have actually mentioned them as a concern in public, and they may well be behind the slightly improving situation on pay at Foxconn.

Time to bite into a fair AppleAs a semi-professional Apple-hater, I’d ruled the iPhone out of my candidate list already, purely for my usual tin-foil-hat reasons. But if Steve Jobs can prove himself willing to genuinely engage with the issues rasied by Make IT Fair, and as they say, give his outsourced workers a fair bite at the apple, I’ll be willing to give him a fair bite at getting my upgrade.

Come on Steve! Consumers pay enough for their iPhones, that adding another tenner or two to fix some gross rights violations for the people who produce them is small change – and an extra that I’d happily pay for a more ethical iPhone.

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