Young Activits take on Apple but why did it come to this?

Supplier Responsibility at AppleMuch has been written on these pages about Apple’s recent supply chain troubles. Less is known about the Chinese activists behind the scenes who fought to make this issue public and stop abuses towards Chinese workers and communities.

Meet Li Qiang, Liu  Zhiyi, Debby Chan, and Ma Jun.

Li Qiang is Executive Director of New York-based China Labor Watch, which with its network of mainland China labor activists, began reporting on labor conditions at mainland factories of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant and Apple supplier Foxconn, starting in 2008.


In 2010, Liu Zhiyi was a 23-year-old intern with the respected mainland Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend.  After a spate of suicides at Foxconn’s massive Shenzhen factory, the paper decided to launch an underground investigation of Foxconn’s plant.  As all of the full-time reporters who had tried to pose as job seekers were rejected by Foxconn for being too old, Liu Zhiyi decided to try and was immediately hired. His report, which appeared in full in both Chinese and English, provided a window on to the hopeless existence of Foxconn’s disheartened young workers.

Apple Ignores The Evidence

Debby Chan is a project officer at Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which also uses student volunteers posing as job seekers in the factories to acquire first-hand information about factory conditions. Since 2009 SACOM has followed the plight of workers at another Taiwanese-owned factory in Jiangsu Province who were exposed to highly toxic N-Hexane in the assembly line for Apple products. Although Apple acknowledged this problem in its 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report, it repeatedly ignored the disabled workers pleas for the company’s help.

workers in a technology plantMa Jun is Executive Director of Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and considered one of China’s leading environmentalists.  He leads a coalition of Chinese environmental NGOs that in 2010 began linking 29 major IT brands with suppliers who dumped heavy metals into China’s water bodies.

After several months of engagement with the brands over his groups’ findings, only Apple refused, dismissing the notion that the named suppliers were theirs. Ma Jun’s group followed up with two successive reports focused solely on Apple’s supply chain record – and, except for its annual Supplier Responsibility Report (which selectively addressed the concerns) Apple remained silent.

Consumers Ignored the Evidence

Over the past couple of years Apple’s failure to respond to this stream of evidence of trouble in its supply chain has been a subject of discussion in the courses on business and human rights that I teach at Columbia University.

We compare the situation of Apple to the case of Nike in the 1990s and the revelation of children working in the Cambodian and Pakistani factories that stitch Nike shoes and soccer balls.  In the case of Nike, labor activists were able to rapidly launch a successful boycott, winning over consumers who were ready to shun Nike for other sneaker brands, such as Reebok and New Balance.

Yet while Nike and Apple share the fact of being the leading company in their industry, there is a salient difference: as my Mac Book-, iPad-, iPhone-porting students reluctantly admit, as abhorrent as they found Apple’s behavior towards its suppliers and refusal to engage with the tireless Chinese labor and environmental campaigners who asked only that Apple look at the evidence they had collected, they were not ready to give up their Apple products by which they have come to conduct so much of their student, professional and personal lives.

Have we reached the limits of advocacy, we pondered, when we are unable to mount a credible boycott against the offending company?

Public Debate Sparks Corporate Action

Over the past few months all that has changed as the news of Apple’s conduct spread through the major media, penetrating the public consciousness, and igniting a public debate about who makes their coveted products.

And Apple finally acted, by meeting with the Chinese environmental NGOs – and most recently agreeing to jointly audit the suspected factories, by publishing most of its supplier list, and by becoming the first electronics firm to join the Fair Labor Association and accede to that organization’s auditing. Students have been emailing me elated at the change, at the fact that it was possible to move a company that might otherwise have just ignored the problems and gone on with business as usual.

For many readers, the decision of Apple to get off the dime and take seriously its responsibility for its harm to Chinese workers and communities is a no-brainer.  The company was pushed to the point where its brand image was at risk and where Apple’s customers were signaling loud and clear – without even having to utter the “B” word – that the behavior was unacceptable.

And yet the public outrage and the turn-around by Apple still took me by surprise.  In the end, I suspect what brought Apple around is that it realized that Debby Chan, Ma Jun and their colleagues were not about to give up.

It underscores a salient question of my courses: What brings a company to change its behavior and why?  Can we rely upon consumers who say they care about how their products are made to walk the talk?

Sometimes they will, more often they will not, either because even when they have the knowledge they are not convinced that an alternative brand is any more responsibly made or because they doubt the efficacy of their individual purchasing choices.

Will businesses compete for a race to the top, aligning business outcomes and social responsibility? If anything, the Apple case demonstrates the opposite. We can hope that things are moving in that direction as we seek out better solutions. In the meantime, we have to thank the tireless, under-resourced human rights advocates who wouldn’t let go – and who will have to work harder and more concertedly and collaboratively to sustain the pressure on a company to make it “a no-brainer” for the company to change its ways.

Originally posted on CSRwire
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Joanne Bauer
is a specialist in environmental issues, human rights, international policy and Asia.  From 1994 to 2005 she was Director of Studies at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs (New York), where she founded their human rights program and environmental values program.

  • Trevor

    I work as an compliance professional in very large and diverse supply chain in China. An irony in the present focus on Apple’s suppliers is the complete absence of any scrutiny of the supply chains of the vast majority of western brands in China. Especially those aligned to large retailers in the apparel and general merchandise sector. I can assure you from first hand experience that conditions for workers in these sectors epsecially in regard to working hours and rest days are much worse than those Apple has been heavily criticised for. Insiders will tell you that the unpublished tolerance for working hours is 72 to 80 hours per week with one to two days rest each month.

    What is also missing in the critique of Western brands role here is any examination of the attitude of Chinese management and business owners towards labour rights and the codes of conduct and standards promoted by western brands. These are more often than not treated with contempt and factory managers frequently resort to fraudulent misrepresentation and or bribes to ensure they meet customers audit standards – rather than make any effort to better control their production planning and labour allocation . Local government officials are also complicit in these practices. For the most part Western brands have sincere intentions to enforce and improve standards in their supply chains – and frequently invest significant resources in these efforts. However these efforts are frequently thwarted by the behaviours mentionned above. Ethical Sourcing needs to be partnered with Ethical Manufacturing. The reality is Chinese perceptions of what constitutes Ethical manufacturing differs significantly from western expectations and China Labour law. Finding a uniquely Chinese way to bridge the dichotomy of low price pressure and increasing ethical expectations carries no stigma whatsoever. Chinese labour activists target western brands because they trust them to be responsive. To bring the same challenges to domestic brands or direclty to local manufacturers would invite an immediate restriction of thier personal freedoms.