How Apple Fixed Its Foxconn Problem

Following months of Foxconn damage control, Apple has made an announcement its critics have hoped for, ending five savvy months of PR clean-up with the savviest move of all.

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Following months of Foxconn damage control, Apple has made an announcement its critics have hoped for, ending five savvy months of PR clean-up with the savviest move of all. The most powerful, richest American company has finally said it will commit some of its riches to making Foxconn a better place to work, reports Reuters's John Ruwitch. Apple hasn't said how much money it will put in, or how the ratio of the burden will be split among consumers and shareholders or what it will go to other than a vague "initial improvements," as Ruwitch describes it. But it doesn't matter, because now Apple can say it did something beyond audits, which many critics called an empty gesture.

After five months of bad press surrounding both Foxconn and Apple, Apple has managed to come out looking like it did all the right things. Though lots of other electronics companies use Foxconn as a manufacturing plant, Apple got the lucky honor of acting as the American face of the controversy, partly because of The New York Times series about the iEconomy and partly because Apple happened to have major, major economic success at this time. The contrast of a company with $100 billion cash and the near-slave labor that contributes to it made for nice blog posts. But even when Apple and Foxconn looked at its worst, Apple made headlines for all the right things (from an investor's standpoint): Its big profits and its popular new gadgets. And, though the blogger outrage ran the Internet for awhile, a protest at the Grand Central store drew four people. And Apple didn't scare away customers, reporting record-breaking sales.

Looking back, Apple handled the bad PR like a pro. When Mike Daisey's stories came out, Apple stayed notably quiet. When it turned out Mike Daisey had fibbed his monologue, Apple looked like a company that doesn't fall prey to media sensationalism. When the well-reported New York Times series came out, however, Tim Cook addressed the situation, with an official Apple statement as well as another statement during an investor meeting. "The first thing that I would want everyone to know is that Apple takes working conditions very, very seriously, and we have for a very long time," he said, before getting down to business. Cook also visited the factories in China just as Marketplace's Rob Schmitz had re-written the Foxconn story, after the Mike Daisey fallout. That's where we get that portrait of happy Foxconn workers with Cook above. The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Then, the company followed through on all that PR. It did some audits, which many criticized as another publicity stunt, empty of any meaning. But, then those audits had real ramifications, with the ensuing reports promising fewer hours worked and higher wages. (That too drew criticism as some of these workers migrate to Foxconn for these long hours, as more hours equals more money.) And now, just after reporting another quarter of crazy profits, Apple says it will put all that money toward further improving worker life.

Of course this is probably just part of Apple's elaborate (and smart) public relations clean-up. Apple is a company after all and this statement from Foxconn chief Terry Gou shows there are other motives at play here. "We’ve discovered that this (improving factory conditions) is not a cost. It is a competitive strength. I believe Apple sees this as a competitive strength along with us, and so we will split the initial costs," Gou told Reuters. But as we said months ago, no matter what Apple does, even if it's sincere, it will look it has less-than-philanthropic motivations. And Apple's PR moves on this issue have involved more than just words. Even if it's all to make the company look better, at least Foxconn workers are getting something out of it. That idea makes all of us iOwning Americans feel a little better about buying our pseudo-sweatshop handmade devices.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.