Why Chinese Factory Abuse Isn’t an ‘Apple Issue’

Who’s to blame for the disastrous roster of health, safety and environmental problems chronicled by Apple’s recently published “ Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report“?
In the past year, and especially in the past month, Apple has become associated with the many problems of Chinese manufacturing for two reasons.
First, a string of high-visibility suicides by employees of the Taiwanese contract manufacturing firm Foxconn were universally reported in the media as having occurred “at factories that make iPhones” and other such associations (even though those factories typically make products for many different companies).
And second, Apple’s “Supplier Responsibility” report generated enormous news coverage, and most of it overemphasizing Apple’s role and de-emphasizing the role of other parties.
Media aren’t the only ones associating Apple with Chinese factory problems.
Remember that funny CGI  video in which Steve Jobs wears a Darth Vader helmet? In the video, Jobs makes a user’s iPhone 4 antenna work better by slicing off two of his fingers with a lightsaber.
The video was made by a Taiwan-based company called Next Media Animation. The company exists to take a comical slant on current news events. Humor in the videos comes from wild exaggerations of actual events and the literal depiction of both abstract ideas and popular beliefs. As a barometer of public opinion about news stories, it’s as good as anything else out there.
In the Steve Jobs video, the Apple CEO (still wearing his Darth Vader helmet) is shown driving an overly-aggressive “production schedule” as workers are seen falling past the window behind him.
The notion that Apple is responsible for driving factory workers to kill themselves is echoed by various protesters taking action against the treatment of workers at some Chinese factories.
Posters show “bloody Apple” with a red snake coming out of the Apple logo. Steve Jobs with devil horns. The burning of cardboard iPhones in protest. These and other images convey a general sense that Apple is responsible for the Foxconn suicides.
One of the transgressions listed in Apple’s report involved the use at a Wintek plant of a deadly chemical called n-hexane as a faster-drying alternative to alcohol. Some 137 workers reported health problems as a result, according to Apple. The affected workers have lodged a complaint against Wintek, saying they were inadequately compensated for their damaged health and received inadequate protection against future medical bills. They’ve specifically and publicly appealed to Apple to champion their cause. A Reuters report on the issue contrasts Apple’s high profits during the time when workers were being exposed to the chemical.
The problem is that Apple is getting most of the blame for a problem that is not Apple’s alone.
The truth is that Apple is at fault to some degree, sure. But so are the other companies that also manufacture in those same and other factories. So is Foxconn, Wintek and their competitors in China who have similar or worse issues. So is the government of China. So are you and me — the people who buy gadgets based on price, without considering the working conditions of the people who make those cheap devices.
To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a village to exploit a child.
In order for the many problems to occur in Chinese factories, it requires the government of China, the government of the importing countries, the contracting companies, and the customers to all look the other way while known abuses are taking place inside factories. We’re all guilty. I am. You are. So are the tens of thousands of toy companies, food companies, consumer electronics companies and others who benefit from cheap Chinese manufacturing.
Besides, the alternative for many young Chinese people to working seven days a week in an unsafe factory is unemployment. As horrible as some of these factories are, it’s probably better than desperate poverty with no hope for the future.
The Chinese economic miracle, and the unique political-economic system that sustains it, is fragile, according to the conventional wisdom. Western consumers and politicians are afraid of high prices. The Chinese government and public — as well as global economists — are afraid of slow Chinese growth. The last thing many people want is for Chinese factories to become less competitive, even if that would mean better working conditions. Nobody wants to rock the boat.
The problem is exacerbated by rising wages in China, and the declining availability of workers. Some fear the end is near.
There’s got to be a way for China to keep improving worker health and safety in factories, and transition from the “sweatshop to the world” to a leader in manufacturing that is both humane and sustainable.
Apple’s recent actions, as detailed in the company’s report, is one rare step in this direction. While just about everyone else is hiding under a rock, or pointing fingers at somebody else, Apple is stepping up and making changes.
One partial solution, in fact, is to demand that more companies conduct the kind of auditing and public disclosure that Apple has done. Another is to learn from the report, and demand more independent auditing (now that we know how frequently documents are falsified in China). And a third – and perhaps the most powerful – is for we consumers to start caring more about the working conditions of the people who make the products we buy. And if the truth is either concealed from us or horrifies us, perhaps we should buy something else.
In any event, blaming Apple may feel good, because the company is such a runaway success. But ultimately, Chinese factory woes are everybody’s problem, not just Apple’s.