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iPod & Sweatshops

iPod & Sweatshops

September 5, 2007 —

Few products have achieved the iconic status of the Apple iPod. Its cultural power is reinforced by the ultra-hip silhouetted figures in ads, the association with Bono and all he stands for as a human rights activist, and mostly the ability to miraculously store an entire music collection in the palm of your hand.

Apparently, nothing could tarnish the iPod's image - not even a human rights scandal.

Down the Memory Hole

Last June, Britain's The Mail reported on sweatshop conditions in the Chinese factories where the iPod is manufactured. Foxconn, the plant specified in the report, employs hundreds of thousands of people for wages as low as $50 a month. The workers live in dormitories crammed with up to 100 people at a time. The media jumped on the story, but after Apple responded by saying that it would investigate the situation, the world apparently wired up its ears with iPlugs and cranked up the tunes.

A couple of months later, Apple reported that the factory was "in compliance in the majority of the areas audited." The company did admit to violations of its Code of Conduct, including workers exceeded the limit of number of hours worked, and questionable employee disciplinary actions such as forcing workers to stand at attention. But overall, Apple issued no harsh denouncements following the investigation and considered itself generally satisfied.

The story has now completely vanished, and an ethical shopper has to dig through old web pages to find out whether or not to consider looking beyond Apple for an MP3 player. Certainly, one less customer for a mega-hit like the iPod will not affect Apple's bottom line. Nor will it will slow down the pressure on Chinese manufacturers from western companies to keeps up with demand. But that shouldn't stop American consumers from wondering if there is any way to know if the working conditions of these factories can live up to standards of decency.

Here's a more important question: Can a company with Apple's resources do more to influence Foxconn and other manufacturers to uphold workplace standards? In theory, pressure from Apple could have a ripple effect. Foxconn is the world's biggest contract manufacturer. Its list of clients includes Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, and Sony.

In one of the more thoughtful reports that came out after the story broke, Newsweek called for more transparency, suggesting that Apple - flush with more than $8 billion in cash - could build its own factory in China rather than contracting out to a facility with questionable practices.

Newsweek indicated that at least two electronics companies, Motorola and Plantronics build products at wholly owned facilities in China. Plantronics spent $23 million to build a 270,000 square-foot plant for wireless-phone headsets, and Motorola's Chinese factory in Tianjin makes wireless phones.

The Newsweek piece states, "An Apple factory built to accommodate good working standards in China would give the company total control over conditions, environmental practices, and all the other things that manufacturers like to brag about these days. It would erase any concerns--warranted or not--about worker exploitation there." The article acknowledged the many difficulties the company would face in constructing a facility in China.

It's easy for Apple to contract Bono to sell iPods, or to use images of John Lennon and Gandhi in its corporate branding. It's a lot harder-and ultimately more rewarding-for Apple to live up to the values espoused by those icons of peace.

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