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Apple Tries Damage Control after Horrific Working Conditions at its Factories Exposed

Apple's attempts at cleaning up its image after recent scrutiny of its labor practices are more about reputation than actual change.
 
 
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President Barack Obama blew a kiss to Apple in last week’s State of the Union speech, praising the entrepreneurial spirit of its founder, the late Steve Jobs, as the cameras panned to his widow in the audience.

Obama’s timing couldn’t be weirder. In the last month, Apple has released a damning audit that found almost 100 of its supplier factories force more than half their workers to exceed a 60-hour week. The company announced responsibility for aluminum dust explosions in Chinese supplier factories that killed four workers and injured 77. Hundreds more in China have been injured cleaning iPad screens with a chemical that causes nerve damage.

Apple was just subjected to a “This American Life” radio special reporting on its abysmal factory conditions in China. Last weekend a front-page  New York Times  story asked why the company offshored all of its manufacturing, mostly to China. (The answer is found in what its executives call “flexibility.” Tens of thousands of workers there live in factory dorms on-site, where, the  Times reports, they are woken in the middle of the night and forced onto 12-hour shifts when Apple decides a product needs tweaking.)

In the face of all this bad press, the tech darling’s response has been to reveal its supplier factories and to announce a partnership with the Fair Labor Association to do stepped-up factory inspections. The FLA is the partly corporate-funded group that until now only monitored apparel factories, and which Nike helped establish after its own scandals in the ’90s.

In sum, Apple is now doing what Nike has been doing for nearly 15 years: the apology-plus-transparency formula, straight out of the manuals offered by “reputation management” consultants.

This was certainly enough for most mainstream media and even some activists. Some more dubious observers said the actions came about because of “consumer pressure,” claiming the company acted to quell the displeasure of the legions of iPhone worshippers.

It must be said that Apple looked more serious this week than it did several years ago, when it shrugged off 18 worker suicides at its main supplier, Foxconn, in China. Steve Jobs told the press that the high number of suicides was about average for the Chinese population as a whole. Just last week, Terry Gou, CEO of Foxconn,  referred to his workers as “animals” during an appearance at the Taipei City Zoo—not a lot of empathy there, either.

Change the Image, Not the Actual

When anti-sweatshop campaigners in the ’90s relentlessly called Nike out for its miserable, toxic factories around the world, sneaker-buying Americans  did have an impact on Nike.

U.S. sales fell for four successive years, despite billion-dollar marketing outlays every year. So CEO Phil Knight rented the National Press Club and told reporters his shoes were “synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.” He vowed to put things right.

Since then, Nike has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on factory “monitoring” and hired on a “corporate social responsibility” staff of over 200. Nike became a charter member of the FLA in 1999, and has a representative on its board.

What has it wrought? Very little. Richard Locke, a highly regarded business professor and long-time observer of Nike, has been granted extraordinary access by the shoe giant. “A decade’s-worth of high-profile efforts to change sweatshop conditions in overseas apparel factories hasn’t worked,” Locke concludes.

Why hasn’t it? He who pays the piper calls the tune. All these new workers’ rights experts work for the corporations they’re monitoring—either directly, as on Nike’s social responsibility staff, or in NGO mode. NGOs sell their monitoring services to the big brands that are seeking cover while their supplier factories continue the same profitable patterns of worker abuse.

 
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