Nearly buried in the This American Life retraction
March 17, 2012
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This American Life released a retraction today about it story reporting on working conditions at Apple suppliers in China. Kudos to This American Life for spending an entire show on this.
I’m afraid that This American Life’s focus on its own errors might overshadow the truths about working conditions in China. To their credit, they spend some time trying to get at the facts.
In the final minutes, Ira Glass interviews Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, who has done his own investigation of working conditions at Apple. Duhigg makes the following claims, which I have little reason to doubt:
- Actual labor costs are not a major component of the cost of creating Apples products; Apple products could be made in the US for roughly the same cost.
- It is the ability to quickly and flexibly adjust its supplier chain that in the real benefit to sourcing to China (actually, I’m a bit skeptical of Duhigg’s story here — I wonder if he is exaggerating a bit — but I don’t doubt at all that China is very much more flexible than the US).
- The biggest violations in working conditions are overwork (24 hour back-to-back shifts, 60+ hour work weeks, people pressured into working over time) and unsafe conditions (for example, flamable industrial dust).
- Apple lacks the will to insist on better working conditions in China.
- If consumers put pressure on Apple, Apple would insist on better working conditions. (In an interview Duhigg did with Terry Gross, he compared this to the changes that occurred at Nike suppliers).
Duhigg finished with this:
You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.
This is worth pondering. I think it might be time to stop buying from Apple until things are vastly improved. If Apple, the leading tech producer, corrects its course, I am sure most of the the other hardware companies will follow suit.
Questions — what is Microsoft’s current record with respect to working conditions overseas? Are there hardware companies who are more ethical?