The Problem with Ethical Gadgets
There’s been a lot of discussion recently over whether Apple — currently sitting as the world’s most valuable company by stock valuation — should be doing more to ensure the basic human rights of the workers in the Chinese factories — largely controlled by a company called Foxconn, which is an external contractor to Apple — are upheld and, where possible, improved. So the logic goes, Apple makes a huge profit each year, and some of that money, so the argument goes, could go into better wages for the Foxconn employees who make Apple’s iPhone, iPads and iPods.
It’s certainly a noble argument — and a useful stick for those who don’t like Apple to beat them with — but it’s not the entire picture, which is, as such, a more complex and nuanced situation than at first glance. First, there’s the commonly overlooked fact that while Apple is a major customer of Foxconn, it’s far from being its only customer; in the IT space, everyone from IBM to Dell to Sony to Microsoft use Foxconn’s factories for production purposes. However, it’s Apple that gets shoved into the “leadership” role in this case, even though it’s not set in stone at all that if Apple pulled out of Foxconn’s factories, the others would follow suit. It could well just lead to Apple’s products going up in price, while competitors continued to use Foxconn’s cheap labour.
For its part, Apple is adamant that it conducts regular inspections of factories, and while it’s open to saying that it has in some cases uncovered irregular working practices — and even ceased using some suppliers as a result — there’s also the allegation that Chinese factories have faked factory setups when inspections are taking place. That’s a hard one to judge either way, as is the issue of whether a Chinese factory worker is better off than a Chinese farm worker; the lines who queue up to get a job at Foxconn certainly suggest it could be an improvement. As with anything in China, given the strong level of government control, it’s hard to come to a definitive conclusion in any case.
None of this means that conditions for workers shouldn’t be improved, but there’s ultimately one way that this could be achieved, and that’s by consumers themselves making it a key purchasing criteria; if it becomes too expensive in terms of lost sales for a company to use labour with allegedly unethical roots, they won’t do so. That’s not just Apple, however; in order to change the way that technology is produced, especially given that the production of some key components involves incredibly harsh chemical processes, it would need to be something that was insisted upon by consumers (and businesses) at every level.