Apple boycott brews over worker abuses

Apple iPad. Photo / Supplied
Apple iPad. Photo / Supplied

Apple, the computer giant whose sleek products have become a mainstay of modern life, is dealing with a public relations disaster and the threat of calls for a boycott of iPhones and iPads.

The company's image was tarnished after the New York Times detailed allegations of terrible working conditions in some of the factories of its network of Chinese suppliers. Now the word "boycott" has started to appear in media coverage of its activities.

"Should consumers boycott Apple?" asked a column in the Los Angeles Times last week as it recounted details of the PR fallout.

The influential Daily Beast and Newsweek technology writer Dan Lyons wrote a scathing piece.

"It's barbaric," he said. "Ultimately the blame lies not with Apple and other electronics companies - but with us, the consumers. And ultimately we are the ones who must demand change."

Forbes magazine columnist Peter Cohan also got in on the act.

"If you add up all the workers who have died to build your iPhone or iPad, the number is shockingly high."

The New York Times' revelations, which centred on the Foxconn plant in southern China that has repeatedly been the subject of accusations of worker mistreatment, have caused a major stir in the United States.

Although such allegations have been made before in numerous news outlets, this time they have struck a chord.

The newspaper detailed allegations that workers at Foxconn suffered in conditions that resembled bonded labour, working obscenely long shifts in unhealthy conditions with few of the labour rights that workers in the West would take for granted.

It also mentioned disturbing events elsewhere in China among suppliers, such as explosions at iPad factories that killed four people and another incident in which 137 workers were injured after cleaning iPhone screens with a poisonous chemical.

Through the iPod, iPhone and now the iPad, Apple has revolutionised lifestyles across the world and built up a cult of worshippers. It has also generated billions of dollars in profits, in part because of the cheapness of Chinese labour.

But much of the firm's success rests on its "cool" reputation among urban professionals and a positive corporate image. Stories of worker abuse at Chinese firms are a direct threat to that and Apple has come out fighting.

In a lengthy email sent to Apple staff, chief executive Tim Cook met the allegations head-on.

"We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern," Cook said.

"Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us ... accusations like these are contrary to our values."

This month Apple released a list of the firms in its worldwide supply chain as part of its 2011 audit of human rights conditions at factories it has partnerships with.

However, the list made for grim reading. It revealed that 62 per cent of the 229 facilities did not comply with Apple's 60-hour maximum working week policy. Almost a third had problems with hazardous waste.

Cook insisted Apple did not turn a blind eye to conditions in its supplier network. But he did warn that the firm was likely to discover more problems.

"We will continue to dig deeper and we will undoubtedly find more issues."

- Observer

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