The ‘New’ Apple labour Scandal Isn’t Really New At All


You might have noticed a wave of commentary over the past week or so devoted to Apple and its behemoth supplier Foxconn, which employs 727 million laborers in Guangdong Province alone (that’s a very rough estimate).

Why so much attention? Has anything happened? Actually, no. However, there has been some excellent reporting on the subject by David Barboza et al at the New York Times, which has published a series of articles (here’s a gateway link) about the plight of workers in these factories. I’d like to say at the outset of this post (before the criticism starts) that the reporting by the folks at the NYT has been top notch, balanced, and a welcome source of information. Kudos to all involved.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s also point out some of the more ridiculous aspects of this renewed debate, starting with CNN and its headline:

Apple in China: The New York Times goes for the Pulitzer

I sincerely hope that this was merely an expression of goodwill on behalf of CNN and not a serious prediction. As I said above, the Times’ reporting has been excellent, but talk of a Pulitzer is really misplaced.

I’m no expert of Pulitzer criteria, but I would hope that for a series to win, it should at least be original. And as much as I like what the Times is doing, I cannot in good conscience say that they are breaking any new ground here.

It seems that the media, not to mention the consumers of media, have very short attention spans. Have we really forgotten about all the scandals and stories that have originated from the same Foxconn factories that are now the subject of this “new” reporting?

This related CNET story lays out the problem, at least in part:

Over the past year or so, stories about working conditions at Chinese manufacturers have trickled into the public consciousness. There were spikes of awareness when, for example, an explosion at the Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China, killed four. Then again when another factory explosion occurred a few weeks later.

Most recently, an amazingly detailed story from The New York Times and a heartbreaking episode of This American Lifehighlighted conditions in China, and Apple’s role specifically as the largest contractor of consumer-electronics devices in the region.

But while the media has been talking about these working conditions for about a year and a half, Apple has known firsthand about the problems for years, and, let’s be honest, has allowed them to continue.

As a criticism of Apple, that’s certainly spot on. But it also reminds us that the latest exposé is more of an update than a news event. Ironically, though, the CNET article fails to go back far enough. Have we already forgotten the lurid details of the string of worker suicides that plagued Foxconn almost two years ago? I wrote about it back in April of 2010.

The labour conditions at Foxconn is far from a new story, and I therefore find the hang wringing and energetic scorn heaped on Apple slightly odd. More ridiculous still is a call for a boycott of Apple’s products due to these working conditions.

Please. Not only does this totally ignore the fact that other multinational electronics companies also use Foxconn to source products, but it also lets all other firms, domestic and foreign, in the tech sector or otherwise, off the hook.

But even worse, what have these boycott supporters been doing over the past couple of years? Perhaps some of the organisers have been hard at work, but for the rank and file of outraged consumers now willing to forego that new iPad, where were you when Foxconn workers were plunging to their deaths in 2010? If you didn’t catch that news, then let’s be honest, at the end of the day, you don’t really care that much about the plight of these people.

Between Apple and Foxconn (and the weak audit policy that CEO Tim Cook has tried to defend), there is much to criticise and plenty of blame to go around. But the breathless excitement and outrage over a “new” cause is ridiculous and, if anything, makes newly-converted activists look out of touch.

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Post tags: apple, foxconn, labour, manufacturing, working conditions

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