Are China’s workers stuck in an abusive relationship with Apple?
Apple released a report today divulging not only the names of its suppliers but the results of inspections into working conditions in its factories. They found that among factory workers in the Apple supply chain, only 38% actually work under the 60-hour per week maximum officially set by the company.
On the same day, hundreds of people rioted outside Apple’s flagship store in Beijing, anticipating the Chinese release of the iPhone 4S. When the crowd, who’d waited overnight in the freezing cold, grew too rowdy Apple decided not to open the store at 7am as planned, and police had to quell a mini-riot which saw the agitated crowd egging Apple’s signature pristine glass facade.
The Daily Beast reports via AP that many of those who waited in line overnight were migrant workers and even elderly people who had been paid to wait in line by “unscrupulous middlemen” so that they could get their hands on the new iPhones and sell them at a mark-up on the secondary market. The price for waiting in line all night in the freezing cold? $15.
Apple has faced criticism over accountability for working conditions in its supply chain. The report issued today was ostensibly a step toward increasing accountability and improving those conditions. “Working hours is a complex issue,” said new CEO Tim Cook according to WSJ, and said the company would advocate for improving them by “monitoring these plants at a very, very micro level.”
Apple also announced that it’s the first company to join The Fair Labor Association, a move that will open it to third-party monitoring.
But it’s hard not to feel like there’s a complicated hegemony between Apple and its Chinese workers. The scant amount of revenue from the sale of an iPhone that flows to the Chinese people who actually make the phones can be seen in this infograph. This is the nature of manufacturing in a capitalist, globalized society, but the contrast between have and have-not seems especially heightened around Apple products, when the first-world frenzy for the products is so fevered and the Chinese labor market so unrewarded.
Workers at Foxconn, the Chinese factory that produces the iPhone a well as Microsoft and other products, threatened suicide earlier this month over a proposed employee transfer they deemed unfair, and the factory “raised wages and boosted worker welfare in 2010 after at least 10 employees committed suicide,” writes Bloomberg.
Of course, if it weren’t for these brutal industrial jobs China would still be a largely agrarian culture with worse poverty than it has now. The only thing worse than working too many hours a week is working too few—that seems to be the rub.
China’s workers will probably have to rely on the their corporate partners like Apple advocating for better conditions over time in order improve things. To that end, it seems like Apple’s report today—even if it is reporting 62% failure to comply to their standards—is a good start.