The new iPad: Made in China. Photocredit: http://www.psfk.com/2012/03/apples-ipad-3-launch-tv.html
Apple has pledged to improve working practices in its Chinese manufacturing plants after an independent audit slammed workers’ conditions and safety standards. The company had requested the investigation after media reports suggested Foxconn, Apple’s manufacturing partner, was underpaying and overworking employees at the facilities, which produce iPhones and iPads. Apple CEO Tim Cook visited a Foxconn plant in Henan at the end of March.
Foxconn and Apple have promised to cut working hours and improve workers’ pay. But will this be enough to tackle the problem? Juliette Garside reported for The Guardian that Apple’s factories in China have tens of thousands of “forced interns”, an issue overlooked by Apple and auditors the Fair Labor Association: “Campaigners have accused Apple, Foxconn and the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a charitable organisation that carried out the audit published on Friday, of ignoring the issue of forced internships, where students are told they will not graduate unless they spend months working on production lines during holidays.”
Hurray for Apple. “There are all sorts of things that Apple and its fans might say in the company’s defense: that Foxconn makes products for lots of American companies, not just Apple; that conditions inside Foxconn might not be as good as in an American plant, but are still a lot better than what other Chinese companies provide,” wrote Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast. But instead, the company has chosen to improve conditions, and should be applauded for that. “Apple appears determined to use its influence and clout to bring about real reform in China,” Lyons said, arguing that Cook’s visit to a Foxconn factory is symbolic of this determination.
Apple rivals will suffer. Improving working conditions in China will eat into Apple’s profit margins, and will also have financial consequences for the company’s rivals. “Other US and European electronics companies will come under extreme pressure to prove that they are living up to similar high standards in their own extended supply chains… None of those other suppliers enjoys Apple’s profit margins, but all will face the same higher costs,” wrote Richard Waters on a Financial Times blog.
Labour shortage. It may take Apple and Foxconn some time to fulfill their promise to shorten working hours by taking on more employees, due to the nature of the Chinese labor market, wrote Keith Bradsher in The New York Times. “There is a growing shortage of blue-collar workers willing to work in China’s factories. This shortage is a big factor in the long shifts and workweeks manufacturers have used to meet production quotas,” Bradsher said. What’s more, many workers “want long hours”: “The Fair Labor Association’s survey of Foxconn workers found that 48 percent said their hours were reasonable and another 34 percent said they actually wanted even more hours. Only 18 percent said their hours were too long.”
Break with tradition. CEO Tim Cook’s visit to China represents a break with Apple tradition, said Loretta Chao at The Wall Street Journal: “Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs never traveled to China on official business as CEO in such a public and visible manner.” According to Chao, this may indicate a shift in focus towards China, as it is the company’s biggest market outside the US, and Apple may try to cultivate closer links with the Chinese government.