Apple: Troubling Underside of Its Success Story
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Like pretty much everyone else nowadays, I'm cheering on Apple(AAPL) . Seriously, I'm not being sarcastic. Demand for the new iPad is "off the charts," and that's not just great for Apple shareholders, but for everyone else during this less-than-inspiring era.
Aside from the economic lift that Apple is giving the economy in various ways, there's something about the company's success that's infectious, almost Capraesque -- even if, like me, your only exposure to the company is reading the Steve Jobs biography or getting notice of a Quicktime upgrade for your PC.
It's such a peachy-keen picture of all-American success that it's tempting to ignore how Apple workers, the actual people who make those gleaming new iPads, are being treated in China. That's where the iPad is made, and it's not exactly hot-off-the-presses news to say that conditions at the plant of Apple's supplier, Foxconn, are A pretty miserable .
The hyperlink in the preceding sentence goes to a New York Times expose on conditions at Foxconn's plant in Shenzhen. The furor has died down since the media coverage reached a crescendo in late January, and I think that today -- with the iPad selling like hotcakes and memories growing dim -- is a great time for us to pause for a moment, and reflect on the underside of the Apple success story. It's a classic case of labor exploitation -- really one for the books.
Apple responded to all the bad publicity the way companies do in such situations, by labor-standards firm saying it would "investigate" conditions at Foxconn. Evidently Apple was shocked -- shocked! -- to learn to learn that conditions were so bad for its workers in China.
The New York Time s reported that "employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports" and independent advocacy groups.
Obviously the image of underage workers, standing so long that their legs swell, seven days a week, doesn't jibe well with the happy image that Apple seeks to project. But I can just see the counterarguments. That's the way things are in China. Don't be such a softie. Harsh conditions are better than no conditions -- better than not working and starvation, right? Besides, aren't conditions actually worse at, say, Chinese textile mills? Isn't it unfair to single out Apple?
Eh, not really.
It didn't get a lot of attention -- here's where I found it -- but Richard Brubaker, founder of Shanghai-based Collective Responsibility, a corporate social responsibility expert, suggested in an interview on the Asia Society Website the other day that the attention that has focused on Foxconn actually misses the point.