In the past few months, the curtain has been pulled back at Apple Inc. and the public is getting a close look at how the company operates.
But the spotlight hasn't just been on the legacy of Steve Jobs or on cool products like the iPad and iPhone. The media also has been starting to pay a lot more attention to working conditions at Apple's suppliers, including injection molder Foxconn International.
* “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” a Jan. 25 story by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza in The New York Times.
* “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” from Chicago Public Media's This American Life. The report, which aired Jan. 6, told the story of a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac” who was disillusioned by the company's outsourcing practices.
* “The Future of Foxconn,” from John Biggs of Techcrunch.com. The series, which started Nov. 21, took a close look at the molding company itself, including a visit to the massive Foxconn City plant in Shenzhen that had 14 worker suicides in 2010.
The result of all this publicity? It seems like U.S. consumers are actually starting to pay attention to where and how Apple products are manufactured.
And that just might mean real change that will have an impact on the consumer electronics industry — and possibly beyond.
Ed Frauenheim, a senior editor at our sister publication Workforce Management, had a good blog post on the topic last week: “Bad Apple: Could the Era of Exploitation Outsourcing Be Near Its End?”
Frauenheim writes that problems at Foxconn have been reported before, but U.S. consumers have just started to pay attention.
“In recent years, there has been a shift in attitudes among consumers toward a desire to do business with companies that show ‘kindness' in their operations,” he wrote. “People also are increasingly identifying as ‘global citizens,' meaning they have more empathy for people on the other side of the world. What's more, tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube give people more opportunities to express themselves. This means companies increasingly face penalties for mistreating people — whether those workers are direct employees or not.”
He concluded: “The bottom line for Apple and other companies is that a shameful supply chain is less and less viable. Happily, the age of farming out worker exploitation is coming to a close.”
Let's hope Frauenheim is right, and OEMs like Apple will play more attention to issues like working conditions and safety in their supply chains.
Unfortunately, I don't expect companies that have been treating workers humanely all along will benefit from this attention on “exploitation outsourcing.” Instead, we'll see more pressure on the offenders to clean up their act. That's a pity.