A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Nearly buried in the This American Life retraction

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?

5 responses to “Nearly buried in the This American Life retraction

  1. michaelhannemann March 17, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Everything you say about Apple in China may be true… but from my understanding, that puts them ahead of all the other tech companies who are building things there, which is to say, all of them. They’ve had public audits since 2008, which is part of where we’re getting all this insight into conditions there. They list all their suppliers now, instead of keeping that a trade secret. Salaries have improved – because of public scrutiny, to be sure, but it’s still true. So it does sound like Apple is leading the way here, and whether other companies follow suit still remains to be seen. It can, and should, be better, but if you’re going to stop buying from Apple, it sounds like you’ll have to stop buying technology in general. :-/

    See also: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-02-26/no-company-follows-apples-expanded-china-factory-audits

  2. Will Fitzgerald March 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Micheal, thanks for the link. Here’s a quote from that article: “Rival technology companies may follow Apple in partnering with the FLA if customers begin to see Apple as having higher standards, said Jerry Kim, a management professor at Columbia Business School in New York.” I don’t really know whether FLA membership is the golden ticket — do you?, but just because Apple is the market leader, then what affects them will tend to affect the other companies. It sounds, from the article, like Nokia may better at this than Apple (contra your statement).

    • Josh March 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      From what is publicly available, Nokia does well at their own factories. In order to focus on “core competences” whatever that is, they seem to be divesting themselves of their own factories and sending all that work to China ala Apple. I find that pretty depressing, since in this, following Apple’s lead is dragging them down. Nokia does have a very strong set of ethics rules though. (this is my opinion, I obviously do not speak for Nokia.) At Some point there will only be one factory in China that makes everything.

  3. michaelhannemann March 17, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    It sounds like Nokia deserves credit as well! Sorry, I was going to post more on the previous topic, but with the flood of articles about the TAL retraction, it was hard to dig up, and someone informed that it was time to read _Cars & Trucks & Things That Go_. But now it’s naptime, so I was able to dig up some of the articles I was reading in February:



    This is still hardly a rosy picture, and we all should push companies to do better. I don’t think we should single Apple out for a boycott, however.

  4. michaelhannemann March 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    (Wow, typos/word omissions. Sorry about that. Looks like E.’s not the only one who needs a nap.)

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