Apple corporation is in a unique position. The company has distinguished itself from the competition through advanced design and branding. Distinctive products are part of Apple’s marketing plan.
But thriving on uniqueness is not all positive. The entire company could suffer if Apple is associated with a negative image. An image of dead and mutilated factory workers, for instance.
A recent explosion at a Foxconn factory in China left four people dead and 18 wounded.
Foxconn manufactures iPhones and other Apple products and has more than one million workers in China. There have been several factory disasters in the past three years, resulting in hundreds of injuries.
Employees often live in tiny dormitories at the factory. In one case, a factory installed special nets to prevent workers from attempting suicide.
This episode brings to light many issues about Chinese government policy, American consumerism and corporate opportunism.
China, despite all its development, is still under centralized control of the Communist party. Companies operate at the discretion of the State, and bad corporate practices can be masked by fraud and strong allies in the government.
In the case of major disasters, there is no transparent, effective mechanism for litigation, and harsh punishments are applied haphazardly by the State.
This is not a one-sided problem, however. For many workers, a Foxconn factory offers the best available opportunity to escape poverty. Knowing this, many firms are lax about job safety.
Foxconn factories are fairly huge, and Apple has invested so much in them that the company can refuse to cooperate with Apple’s demands.
On paper, Apple has strict safety standards that Foxconn and other suppliers are supposed to follow. If Foxconn does not implement the changes, no one at Apple is willing to risk losing millions of dollars per day by shutting down the factories.
The fuel for the massive scale of Chinese manufacturing is ultimately the American market’s demand for products.
Apple in particular has a loyal and growing customer base. In the past quarter Apple reported $13 billion in profits. The incentives are for getting products to market regardless of the human cost.
To put it crudely, companies and consumers are often more concerned about having the newest iPhone in stores on time than about life threatening working conditions in Chinese factories.
American consumers are slowly becoming more aware of issues such as sustainability and fair trade in food and clothing.
It is time for this same consciousness to be applied to manufactured goods, even ones with an Apple logo.