As Tim Cook picks up the leadership of Apple from Steve Jobs, he faces a significant ethical dilemma in Wuhan in a supplier’s company where workers threaten suicide in protest over their working conditions
[THIS DEVELOPING STORY IS BEING UPDATED REGULARLY. ADDITIONS ARE AT THE END OF THE ORIGINAL POST BY PAUL HINKS]
by Paul Hinks
Articles recently reported that Tim Cook (Apple’s new CEO) earned $378m in 2011 He inherited a global technology juggernaut, renowned for its creativity and innovation; a business with $90 billion in cash reserves (The Guardian). Yet there are serious problems at one of its key suppliers, Foxconn, where a recent mass suicide threat posed an ethical dilemma facing Apple and its new leader.
The Telegraph reported [11th Jan 2012]:
Around 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions. The workers were eventually coaxed down after two days on top of their three-floor plant in Wuhan by Foxconn managers and local Chinese Communist party officials.
Not all measures should be financial
A lot of organisations highlight in their annual reports the progress they’ve made against various Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) metrics. Very commendable, but it’s important to dig deeper beyond the glossy brochures and corporate fanfare. Increasingly social-economic factors come in to play, creating a conflict of priorities opposite financial metrics.
Apple is indeed well placed to influence the working conditions at Foxconn. Despite assurances from Apple on its website that it is committed to the highest standards of social responsibility across its worldwide supply chain, the evidence presented highlights that Foxconn employees are seriously aggrieved with their working conditions. In an online article published on Thursday 26 Jan 2012 Reuters noted Apple’s apparent silence on the Foxconn situation – referencing on-going investigations carried out by the New York Times, the Reuters article is an example of growing interest and awareness of the problems at Foxconn.
Difficult working conditions
The Foxconn situation has not developed overnight. The Guardian reported recently [16th Jan 2012] the problems had been developing since at least 2010:
In 2010, a total of 18 of their colleagues in the Shenzhen campus of the Taiwan-owned company did attempt suicide; 14 died. Some employees and labour organisations blamed a combination of factors for the workers’ deaths: low wages, long working hours – sometimes up to 16 hours a day – and inhuman treatment. A number of Apple products have been cited as ‘game changers’ – products that have helped to change how we use technology to live our lives – in stark contrast, it seems that the workforce at Foxconn that help to create these Apples products survive, and sadly tolerate a rather mundane existence. Loyal Apple consumers crave for their Apple products. However, it appears there is a darker, more un-savoury side to how Apple products make it to our shelves.
Leaders can’t ignore ethics
On Tuesday [Jan 24th 2012], Apple announced its financial results for its first fiscal quarter: the figures were impressive and beat analysts’ expectations. Bloomberg (& others) immediately focused on the financial merits of Apple’s results – increasing revenue forecasts & speculating on dividend payments – a few websites noted the share price increments of various Apple suppliers, including Foxconn.
This is all very good news if you’re an Apple shareholder – however will the fortunes of Apple mean anything to the workers in Wuhan?
I borrow a comment from Dilemmas of Leadership [1st edition, p196]: “For some leaders, matters of ethics arise as unwelcome intrusion in the pursuit of economic success”.
Apple’s financial strength isn’t in doubt; however Apple’s position on ethical topics such as the welfare of workers at its suppliers is clearly attracting increased interest. Continued negative media coverage of working conditions at its suppliers may begin to influence and alter customer perceptions of the Apple brand; perhaps ultimately impacting Apple’s cherished economic success?
The need for more than ethical tokenism
The Telegraph highlighted [27 Jan 2012] that Apple have been working on number of initiatives:
In response to outside pressure, Apple this year published a list of its 156 suppliers, representing almost all its supply chain, for the first time. It also joined the Fair Labor Association, becoming the first technology company to do so. Apple has also worked with Chinese labour rights advocates, environmental groups, and has agreed to allow outside monitors into its suppliers’ factories.
Hopefully, Mr Cook and Apple will ensure their corrective actions are interpreted as more than just ethical tokenism; the challenges presented at Foxconn provide an opportunity for Apple to lead by example beyond the technology forum where it enjoys such enviable success.
Update [LWD editors]
More than 10 people were injured in a fight that broke out among workers at a Foxconn plant in north China’s Shanxi Province, police said Monda [September 2012]
Foxconn, the world’s largest maker of computer components, faced criticism on harsh working conditions two years ago after a string of suicides committed by several Chinese factory employees. The company currently has about 1 million employees on the Chinese mainland.
The relationship between Foxconn and Apple flourishes. China Daily announced [May 2012]
Foxconn Technology Group will invest $210 million to build an Apple production line in October in east China’s Jiangsu province, local authorities announced Monday to be located in Huai’an city. Foxconn Technology Group, a top maker of products for Apple, announced [April 2012] that it will build a high-tech manufacturing base in Hainan, China’s southernmost island.
Working conditions have improved at plants owned by Foxconn, a Taiwan-based electronics giant and Apple Inc’s biggest supplier, according to a report released on Tuesday. The Fair Labor Association, a United States-based nonprofit organization, said that Foxconn, a Taiwan-based electronics giant and Apple Inc’s biggest supplier, has completed the actions it agreed to take to improve working conditions at its two plants in Shenzhen and one plant in Chengdu, which make Apple’s popular iPhone and iPad products.
Sunday 7th October 2012
There is growing interest internationally in the Foxconn situation. China Daily commented as follows:
A major supplier for tech giant Apple on Saturday denied reports that thousands of workers making components for the iPhone 5 went on strike at the company’s plant in Zhengzhou, Henan province.
The strike was said to have started at 1 pm Friday [5th October 2012] and continued to 11 pm, involving workers mainly from assembly lines and quality-control inspectors.
“Foxconn raised overly-strict demands on product quality without providing worker training for the corresponding skills. This led to workers turning out products that did not meet standards, and ultimately put a tremendous amount of pressure on workers,” China Labor Watch said in a statement.
October 12th 2012
A new story is developing which suggests harsh treatment of an employee after a near-fatal accident.
October 18th 2012 Latest allegation in Western media is of Foxconn using underage students to work in one of their factories.
November 26th 2012
Foxconn has begun its scheme to replace workers with robots which have been called Foxbotts. Scheme was announced in 2011
March 8th 2013
Major report claims Foxconn factories are ‘Labour camps’
April 2nd 2013
May 21st 2013
Apple leaders including Tim Cook defend the Corporation’s tax arrangements to a Senate Sub-Committee.