In the space of a few months, Apple has gone from being the recipient of cloying, over-the-top adulation when co-founder Steve Jobs died to being the victim of furious attacks for its labor practices in China. I'm neither a fanboy nor an Apple basher, and at the risk of sounding like a wimp, I have to say that neither emotional extreme is justified.
The China issue arose again on Tuesday when ABC's "Nightline" aired a 17-minute segment based on a visit to the Foxconn factory in Shenzen, China, where many Apple products are made and where workers have been known to jump off the roof in despair. (For the record, the Foxconn factories in China are owned by Taiwan's Hon Hai. Taiwan doesn't tolerate such working conditions in its own factories.) Unlike the hard-hitting New York Times series that ignited the issue, ABC's coverage was predictably superficial, consisting mostly of walks down sparkling factory aisles where young workers bent over benches assembling circuit boards and other components.
[ Get the first word on what the day's key technology news means with InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. | And get a digest of the key tech news stories each day in our Technology News Wrap-up newsletter. ]
I've been both a reporter and an industrial worker during my checkered career, and I can tell you that strolling through a production line doesn't tell you much. Interviewing a worker while his or her boss is watching tells you even less.
For example, the Times wrote about an explosion at another Foxconn plant in Chengdu, China, caused when a cloud of aluminum dust ignited, killing four workers. You simply can't see dangerous conditions like that during an escorted tour. A reporter with no experience working in industry doesn't even know what to look for.
I'm not bashing Bill Weir, the reporter who led the "Nightline" coverage. Showing the faces of those workers is a good thing, and by its nature television reporting is limited in what it can show. I'm just pointing out that the segment, which many of had eagerly anticipated, didn't do much to change the terms of the debate about Apple's labor policies.
We already knew that conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzen, China, are dehumanizing, to say the least. We also knew that for many Chinese workers, the factory -- as tough as it is -- offers a big step up from grinding rural poverty; in fact, Foxconn pays its workers 20 percent more than the national average in China. But that's a low bar.
ABC did tell us one important fact: Apple paid $250,000 to join the Fair Labor Association, which is conducting a well-publicized audit of conditions at Foxconn. In addition, Apple is paying for the audit, which will give me pause when I read the final report. What also gives me pause is the fact that the FLA calls the Foxconn plant that Apple uses "first class." If so, I shudder to think what a second-class plant in China -- the kind of facilities where much of our consumer electronics are made -- is like.
Apple: Big enough to make a difference
The issue remains: Is Apple any worse than its competitors, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, that also use Foxconn as its contract manufacturer? I doubt it. It's worth noting that Apple is now releasing the names of its suppliers, while other companies have not, and it's conducting audits of labor conditions, something no other American maker of consumer electronics is doing.