Protest groups Change.org and SumOfUs.org recently delivered boxes containing 250,000 petition signatures to the Grand Central Terminal Apple Store, demanding that Apple investigate and improve worker conditions in Chinese factories. Now that inspections have begun, those same groups are claiming victory.
"This new announcement shows the pressure is getting to Apple," says Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Executive Director of SumOfUs.org. There's just one problem: Apple's announcement isn't new. Apple announced its partnership with the Fair Labor Association on January 13, nearly a month before Change.org and SumOfUs.org delivered their signatures.
In the same press release erroneously taking credit for Apple's partnership with the FLA, SumOfUs.org criticises the group as "a business-funded group with a long track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece, not an effective advocate for workers." The New York Times' report on the FLA is hardly as scathing, though it has found that "many labor advocates say its efforts have barely made a dent in improving working conditions."
AppleInsider has criticised both groups for what it calls "slacktivism," "retroactive activism," and "empowering social change after the fact," since Change.org and SumOfUs.org are claiming credit for actions Apple took long before either group's petitions even began. In fact, most of the "worker abuses" cited in these petitions are sourced from Apple's own annually-released Supplier Responsibility Report.
Jim Dalrymple of The Loop has classified the groups' actions as "nothing more than a publicity stunt." "If these protesters are really concerned about the workers in China, why not deliver that petition to the other companies that manufacture products at Foxconn. Where is the press release saying they were going to visit HP, Dell, Microsoft and others?" Dalrymple asks. "I emailed the PR guy Brett Abrams yesterday and asked him that. No response."
Change.org and SumOfUs.org's petitions have not accomplished anything that Apple wasn't already planning to do on its own. The issue the groups have raised is a serious one, but claiming credit for actions Apple took over a month ago seriously damages their credibility.
Meanwhile, in a conference with Goldman Sachs, Tim Cook detailed the steps Apple is taking to improve conditions at its suppliers' factories (many thanks to Mac Rumors for its detailed transcription). "We think the use of underaged labor is abhorrent. It's extremely rare in our supply chain, but our top priority is to eliminate it totally. We've done that with our final assembly and we're now working with vendors farther down in the supply chain," Cook said. "If we find a supplier that intentionally hires underage labor, it's a firing offense."
On workplace safety: "We don't let anyone cut corners on safety. If there is a problem on safety, we seek out the foremost experts and set a new standard and apply that to the entire supply chain. We focus on the details. If there is a fire extinguisher missing from a cafeteria, that facility doesn't pass inspection until that fire extinguisher is in place."
Beginning in January, Apple began collecting weekly data on over half a million workers in its supply chain, with specific focus on overtime. Apple sets a 60 hour/week cap on supplier workers' overtime hours, and reports indicate its suppliers already have 84 percent compliance. Apple's goal on this is 100 percent.
Thus far Apple has been issuing annual Supplier Responsibility Reports, but Apple will now supply those reports on a monthly basis and release them on its website. No other manufacturer has committed to that level of transparency in its suppliers' working conditions.
By American standards, especially among those who have never set foot in a factory and are unfamiliar with the gruelling pace, poor working conditions, and worker abuses present in even the best and most tightly-regulated of factories, the conditions at Foxconn may indeed sound harsh. But real changes or improvements in those working conditions are not going to come from signing an online petition and tamely delivering a box of signatures to a handful of retail outlets.
The only way conditions at Foxconn have any chance at improving is if companies like Apple take steps to put pressure on their suppliers, and Apple has already done exactly that -- well before anyone outside the company asked it to. In fact, Apple has taken far greater strides in this area than any other consumer electronics manufacturer, so the continued focus on Apple not only seems illogical, it also seems counterproductive. Other consumer electronics companies must be looking at the situation, where Apple's unprecedented transparency about its suppliers has backfired into a PR nightmare, and Sony/Dell/HP/etc. must be saying to themselves that maintaining the silent status quo is better for them in the long run.
This is the third year in a row where, like clockwork, Apple's release of its Supplier Responsibility Report has been followed by a media firestorm and a laser-like focus on Apple to the exclusion of every other Foxconn client. With Apple now committed to releasing these reports monthly, the danger now is that the linkbaiting and Apple-focused controversy will never end. As long as every company except Apple keeps getting a free pass, no real improvements at Foxconn (or anywhere else) are going to happen.