A few days ago, Henry Blodget wrote :
We love our iPhones and iPads.
We love the prices of our iPhones and iPads.
We love the super-high profit margins of Apple, Inc., the maker of our iPhones and iPads.
And that’s why it’s disconcerting to remember that the low prices of our iPhones and iPads–and the super-high profit margins of Apple–are only possible because our iPhones and iPads are made with labor practices that would be illegal in the United States.
The article summarizes a recent episode of NPR’s This American Life which did a special on Apple’s manufacturing. Foxconn, one of the companies that builds iPhones and iPads (and products for many other electronics companies), has a factory in Shenzhen that employs 430,000 people. Apparently, an estimated 5% of them are kids (12 to 14 years) old; the standard shift is 12 hours and can extend to 14 – 16 hours; while the reporter is in Shenzhen, a Foxcon worker dies after working a 34-hour shift; the hands of workers who are using the neuro-toxin Hexane (which evaporates faster than other cleaners) to clean iPhone screens are shaking uncontrollably; etc. All this for a wage of less than $1 an hour.
The bottom line is that iPhones and iPads cost what they do because they are built using labor practices that would be illegal in this country–because people in this country consider those practices grossly unfair.
That’s not a value judgment. It’s a fact.
So, next time you pick up your iPhone or iPad, ask yourself how you feel about that.
A good question indeed and you should ask how you feel. (Interestingly, respondents to this story span the entire spectrum.) But let me ask whether Apple should care about this? The answer is an emphatic “but off course.” Anyone familiar with “non-market strategies” knows that even a small fraction of the population can provide sufficient activism to bring a company to its senses. (If you are not familiar, read “Reputation Rules” by my colleauge Daniel Diermeier.) The momentum is already building: this weekend Forbes asked whether this is Apple’s Nike moment? Of course we hold big, successful companies to a higher standard; tall trees catch much wind.
So what will Apple do? Well, it seems it already mounted campaigns–recently it disclosed for the first time its list of suppliers (without any addresses we should add–they still don’t want to make it easy, but it’s a first step). More interestingly, however, is the question how they will deal with the Foxcon issue: even Apple may not (nor want to) be in a position to control a company that runs a factory with 430,000 people. Indeed, in a follow-up blog my colleague Marty will write about another key reason (besides cost) that Foxcon is so attractive: fast response at massive scale.
But this is not the first time Foxcon suicides are in the news (see May 2010 article) and Foxcon isn’t know for respect of its employees (recently the CEO called its employees “animals“). So Apple likely has been working on addressing this for a while. Could the amazing $8 billion in announced capital investment at suppliers (see this earlier blog entry) include automation to reduce the human stress and risk factor? It surely would be in line with Apple’s strategic quest for high quality (i.e., consistency, low tolerances, etc.) while retaining high scale. However, it would imply a faster-than-expected transition in China from low-level assembly by hand to higher job requirement for much fewer people. Starts sounding like our job quandary?