Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Apple and Ethics

Everyone loves the late Steve Jobs. President Obama lauded his job-creation during the State of the Union speech. Newt Gingrich gave Jobs as an example of a "good" capitalist in contrast with the evil Mitt Romney. World-wide, sales of Apple's phones, tablets, music players, and computers have made Apple the world's most profitable company.

Between its "I'm an Apple" ads and its Genius Bar, Apple cultivates a counter-culture image. Apple gear is popular among the OWS movement.

But there is a darker side to Apple. Counting suppliers, nearly a million people are employed in creating Apple's products but the vast majority of these jobs are in Asia, most in China. They work long hours for small wages. The suicide rate at the Foxcom factory where Apple's products are assembled is high. Recently a group of employees threatened to jump off of the factory roof unless they got raises.

Apple requires its suppliers to limit hours worked to 60 hours/week but it recently admitted that nearly half of its suppliers exceed this. around 5% of its suppliers use child labor.

Apple is not unique in this. HP uses the same factory and most high-tech electronics come from the same or similar plants. Is it fair to hold Apple to a higher standard? I think so for several reasons.

The first is that when their assembly facilities were in the US they made a point of how environmentally safe their factory was. That lent their products a halo effect which persists to today. Chinese factories are not held to the same standards as US factories to say nothing of the standards that Apple was held to.

Second, Apple is a rich company with some of the highest profit margins in high tech. This should be pushed all the way down the line. The workers who make Apple products should be paid more or have better working conditions than the workers who make lower-margin products. To do otherwise is to exploit the Chinese workers.

Which brings me to my next point - how unseemly this is. Here we have OWS protesting that the system is fixed so that the 1% richest can exploit the 99% but their gadgets of choice put them as part of the world's 1% exploiting Asian workers.

Supposedly the issue is not worker wages, it is the supply chain. China has all of the suppliers concentrated in a small area. They also have access to raw materials, especially rare earth metals. The US used to be a major producer of rare earth metals but the main mine was shut down by the EPA.

Around a year ago President Obama asked Steve Jobs about moving his manufacturing back to the US. Jobs said that those jobs will not be returning to the US. We need to reverse this trend. We need to figure out what is needed to entice manufacturers back to the US. Is it a lack of engineers? Have we made our environmental regulations so restrictive that we have to off-shore our pollution? If so then is this ethical. Should we keep tightening regulations here even if it means more emissions elsewhere in the world?

This is a conversation that the country needs to have, starting with Apple.

No comments: