Who's Really to Blame for Apple's Chinese Labor Problems?

The U.S. tech company would like consumers to fault Foxconn, but abuses are particular to Apple products.

foxconn march2 p.jpg

Workers inside a Foxconn factory in the township of Longhua in China's southern province of Guangdong / Reuters

Work conditions at Foxconn, an Apple supplier in China, have reignited a debate about labor regulations in the country. After a New York Times expose on the Shenzhen-based factory, more U.S. media focused on the on the issue, calling for a response from Apple executives.

Recently, Apple hired the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to investigate working conditions at Foxconn, and ABC's Nightline aired exclusive footage from inside the factories.

But Corporate Social Responsibility expert Richard Brubaker, Founder of Shanghai-based Collective Responsibility (Twitter), says focusing on Foxconn may be missing the larger issue. Asia Blog talked to Brubaker by email.

According to the FLA, conditions are actually much better at Foxconn compared to other factories, such as textile mills, in China. How would you say the working conditions in tech companies compare to those of other factory jobs in China?

Comparing the conditions of Apple suppliers to those of textile mills is comparing Apples to cars. The labor practices of both industries have always been different, as the products are different, the equipment is different, and the margins are different. He might as well have compared Foxconn to a coal mine.

There has been a lot of focus on Apple's relationship with Foxconn. But other tech companies also use Foxconn, correct?

Were it only Foxconn, then the questions of Apple being no better than others in their industry would be valid. However, as there have been two iPad factory explosions and it was on the iTouch line of Wintek where 140 employees were hospitalized. It is important to understand that the problems are far bigger than Foxconn and are specific to the Apple supplier set.

So for me the distraction is the focus on Foxconn, not Apple, and if there is to be any real reform at all, it wil require everyone to refocus their efforts towards Apple's entire supplier set. If it only remains Foxconn, as we have seen with the recent FLA work, then there will be no real reform.

Apple does seem to be the focus of a lot of media attention.

Media focus on Apple is a result of three things:

1. Apple is behind (they are only now investing in third-party audits and building supplier inspections teams), the problems are specific to Apple (iPad factory explosions and Wintek poisoning), and Apple is defiant (always saying they hold the "highest standards").

2. Apple's model. Unlike Nokia, Motorola and others, Apple is 100 percent outsourced, so they are going to naturally be exposed to more issues.

3. Apple is the largest technology company in the world, with the strongest brand recognition, and makes a billion USD a week in profit.

To be clear, the issues of Foxconn and the issues of Apple are actually quite separate, but it is the media and Apple who are tying them together. The media, before the New York Times piece, did this because they did not understand the full breadth of the issues and had not researched the problems beyond Foxconn. Apple does this because the more that they can maintain stakeholder focus on Foxconn, the easier it will be to say that this is not just their problem (i.e., it's the industry), but that they are working hard to fix the problems (i.e., two weeks of FLA inspections at Foxconn).

In essence, by focusing on Foxconn and admitting there are problems at Foxconn, Apple is able to protect themselves. Were this story about their entire supplier network, or about the wider abuses that occur at suppliers specific to Apple (i.e., don't source to industry), then Apple would have a far bigger PR/operations problem to solve. 

Chinese labor laws are much different compared to those in other countries like the United States. To what extent is this the tech brand's problem to solve? Where does Apple's responsibility end and the Chinese government's responsibility begin?

This is perhaps the most hotly debated question. Is Apple responsible for the conditions on the Foxconn line? Are they responsible for the exploding iPad factories and nHexane exposures?

In answering this question, you need to consider the following:

Legally, Apple is not (under U.S. or Chinese law) directly responsible for the conditions that exist at a supplier's site. Apple and its supporters are correct in saying that in the strictest legal sense they are not responsible. However, and this is where it gets more complicated, just because Apple is not "responsible" does not mean that it cannot be held responsible legally.

Using the Wintek case as one example, or perhaps the more recent Foxconn iPad factory explosion: If it could be proven that Apple had known that the conditions were unsafe and did not act, then there is room for legal responsibility to enter. Which is why Wintek looked to Apple for compensation, and why Apple did engage those affected. Even though no settlement has been reached.

Second to that, and separate from the concerns of labor, where Apple's legal liability (and general risk) is increasing is in the impact of these failures. At present, Apple maintains that it cannot meet market demands for its products because demand is too high. However, with two iPad factory explosions and the closure of Catcher impacting the production capacity of Apple, even though these are supplier issues, Apple's investors may (now or sometime in the future) find that the continued failures of Apple suppliers are actually a failure of Apple to act in their best interests. This would become particularly true were there to be a major supply chain failure (Chinese government shuts down Foxconn) or were there to be a consumer boycott (In China or the U.S.).

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Hanqing Chen is a reporter for Asia Blog. She is currently studying journalism and anthropology at New York University.

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