Apple, sweatshops, and the big lie

Recently a “This American Life” broadcast highlighted the injustices at Apple Foxconn factories and sparked an outrage. There has been a great deal of discussion about outsourcing and improving working conditions because of it, which I think is an amazingly positive thing. Any time activists and ordinary concerned citizens get together to put the word out on a problem there is the possibility of real change happening. It represents a chance for the workers, who are all too often forgotten cogs in the machinery of mass production, to get a fair share of the pie.

The problem with this damning report is that it was almost entirely fabricated.

Inside a shoe workshop in Bangladesh

I made my sweatshop labour / cultural exploration documentary “My Cultural Divide” quite a while ago. It focused on a different product, clothes. But the principals are the same in terms of corporate responsibility, and protecting corporate image. When I made the movie I didn’t want to focus on one company or brand because abuses happen across the spectrum of manufacturing. To do so puts an unfair spotlight on them, when the problem is more universal. This is what I think happened in the situation with Apple, and unfortunately now that this report has been revealed as “theatre”, it will cause the opposite effect: complete apathy and confusion in the part of the consumer.

Consumers are already apathetic and confused enough. Conflicting reports about who is good and who is bad make it impossible to keep up with who we can “ethically” buy from, especially if those companies change from year to year. Does someone now say, “Okay, so it’s good to buy from Apple again? Here’s my credit card!”  I fear this is exactly what will happen, the same as when they buy their new hairdryer, their new sound system, or their new blender. (I must point out this entire episode didn’t exactly hurt Apple financially as it seems the iPad 3, released today, is a huge hit, and their stock price is as high as ever).

This is exactly why the only thing that will possibly work is exerting public pressure to get all companies to become members of  independent labour rights organizations, or for governments to ensure outsourcing companies comply to some set of standards. I admit that there are major problems to this solution as well, but it would be better than the completely unregulated, anti-union (or forced government union as it is in China) situation that exists today.

Giant companies like Apple or Walmart exert pressure on subcontracted manufacturers to get better prices for their components or clothes as the case may be. This is a reality, and it’s hard to fault them for it. The problem occurs when that push to the bottom eats away at the individual’s salary (or their workplace safety) and not the profit margin for the subcontracting company. Having a set of standards from an independent labour rights organization forces these subcontracting companies not to take away from the workers who are already making so little. Like I mentioned, enforcing those standards is the big issue – but a problem I think a solution can be found for.

In all fairness, Apple is probably one of the best when it comes to ensuring employee (even those subcontracted) safety and livelihood in the electronics industry. This whole debacle was an unfair attack at the big and easy target. It didn’t help things that Apple is also notoriously secretive about their products, which probably makes it difficult for reporters to get access to manufacturing plants. It is this level of secrecy which breeds suspicion, and as much as I do understand Apple’s mandate to have NSA level security on the specs to their latest gadget, this was probably the reason why the public was so willing to buy into the story of horrible abuse and slave like wages.

For Apple’s part, they have let down the curtain a bit, and have now asked the Fair Labour Association to access some of their factories. This happened as a result to that damning, albeit factually false, report. I don’t know what to think of this – on one hand Apple is doing something I think they (and everyone else) should have done a long time ago. On the other, it was an action sparked by a lie (or a theatre piece that was misrepresented, if you take Mike Daisey to his word).

I am left with this thought, which is similar to the ones I had eight years ago while crouching in a sweatshop, chatting with a child making sandals. We should do something about this, it’s not a problem that will just go away. The next time you buy something, anything, write the company that made it a note. Say you read that Apple recently had the Fair Labour Association investigate their factories, and you think that company X should do that too, because you care about the people who make the products you use. It will make a difference. And considering you are wearing clothes that were made at pennies an hour, and browsing on a computer that may have poisoned the small hands making it, it is the very least you can do.





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