Daily Archives: February 18th, 2011

The conn of the fox

Sad CRT iMacAfter three plus decades in the PC/IBM-compatible world, I recently acquired two Apple computers. I plan to blog a bit later about the transition from one world to the other.

Apple products are sleek, stylish, elegant, quiet, cool and fun to use. My last PC computer was the size of a small suitcase and I paid extra money for the “super quiet” case. Yet it sounded like a 747 taking off and we practically had to yell over the noise when in my office. By comparison my Apple “Mac Mini” is so small that it sits on my desk and I didn’t even realize it was a computer at first. I mistook it for an external hard drive. The size and the fact that it made absolutely no noise at all was deceptive.

“The facilities at Foxconn are fine, but the management is poor. Hundreds of people work in the workshops but they are not allowed to talk to each other. If you talk, you get a black mark in your record and you get shouted at by your manager. You can also be fined.”
–An investigator of Foxconn’s Longhua plant

So, for the first time in my life, I’ve signed up as an Apple customer, I’ve made purchases from the Apple store, and I’ve received three shipments so far from Apple. And I’ve noticed that their boxes, sleek and stylish also, say things like “Designed in California.”

The phrase “designed in” is, of course, a euphemism for “made outside the U.S.A.” At my former employer we sold apparel products in our store that had large labels sewn into the garments. These labels were representations of the flag of the United States. In smaller print, under the flag, were the words “Designed in the U.S.A.” I often wondered if this actually worked on the non-critical thinkers out there. I guess that approach must work on some. The garment was actually made in Pakistan but I wondered how many purchasers actually realized that.

Some shoppers would make it very clear they only wanted “made in the USA.” I’d say great, and show them to the rack of USA garments. These were, however, about three times the cost for the same item. And, I’ll be painfully honest here, were not of the same quality as the items made in Pakistan. Sad. Even the most hardcore patriotic shopper withered in the face of such facts.

So my Apple products proudly proclaimed that they were “designed in California.” A check of the label told the rest of the story. “Made in China.” No big surprise there. It’s the age old story of companies wanting consumers with American dollars purchasing their products but not wanting to pay American workers to produce them. And it’s not just Apple. My Google toys were also made in China.

A few days later a news story about Apple caught my eye. It seems that their products made in China are handled by a company known as Foxconn. And, in 2010, “nearly a dozen” Foxconn workers committed suicide, some by jumping from buildings. In fact, Apple’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Tim Cook, the man likely to fill the shoes of Steve Jobs, personally visited Foxconn in 2010 to improve “working conditions” there. Cook was accompanied on his visit by “two leading experts” on suicide.

For its part, Foxconn also took action. Among other brilliant ideas it began attaching large nets to buildings, Apple said. Is it just me or does that seem like treatment of the symptom? Sure, you could fix the underlying problems that lead some to think suicide is a solution or, even better, just try to catch more of them before they hit the ground and cause annoying negative publicity.

Foxconn also hired counselors.

So nets and counselors, eh? Both of these solutions are decidedly aimed at workers. But where is any indication that Foxconn is willing to fix itself and improve working conditions? Sadly I can’t find evidence of that in the news reports I’ve seen.

Apple reported that it found 91 underage workers. Not a good sign of a responsible culture.

It was also reported that some of the materials used to produce its products, like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold may not be “fair trade.” In other words, those products may be sourced from regions where armed conflict and/or human rights abuses are known to be occurring.

Apple said it had required companies to reimburse $3.4 million in “recruiting fees” to workers. Yeah, employees had to pay bribes for the right to be mistreated workers.

Chinese environmental groups recently released a report critical of Apple saying that the company didn’t do enough to address health and environmental concerns at its manufacturing plants. In one case, they claimed a worker at a Wintek Corp. plant had nerve damage caused by a chemical known as n-Hexane. Apple said it required Wintek to stop using n-Hexane after 137 workers had experienced health problems after exposure to the chemical.

It seems to me that a job has to be pretty poor indeed if that many workers think the only way out is to die. Last year, the Telegraph reported that 16 workers jumped, 12 died, and that 20 more people were caught and stopped by the company before they could jump.

Personally, when I eat a plate of food, perhaps a little chicken, I like to know that the chicken had a pretty good life, at least by chicken standards. At least up to the point where it was killed to become my dinner. I’d like to think it lived free and enjoyed the sorts of things that chickens enjoy. What I absolutely do not want to hear is that the chicken was mutilated at birth, kept in a tiny box for its entire life, and was forced to stay awake and eat under bright lights 20 hours a day. Some say God put animals on Earth for humans to use, but that’s just taking things too damn far.

I feel something similar about my shiny new Apple products. I’d like to know with certainty that the company I’ve chosen doesn’t abuse human beings. Even those in other countries. I’d like to know that the employees were paid a fair wage, given things like reasonable breaks, had safe working conditions and were treated with dignity and respect. I’d like to know that workers weren’t pushed to work 70 hours a week or subjected to so much stress that they “twitched” during their off hours.

Is that too much too ask?

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