Working conditions: Apple faces up to its China syndrome

apple working conditions
A far cry from factory working conditions: Apple’s iconic store in Hong Kong’s Central IFC Mall.

I still remember the first time I used an Apple Mac computer, back in the early stages of my career, nearly 25 years ago. The experience was a significant moment and must have been replicated millions of times over among young production journalists, media types and creatives. Apple’s computers were central to improving a creative’s working conditions.

Today, a beautiful graphical user interface is taken for granted, on the Mac OS and on Windows. Back then, it was new, intuitive and easy to understand compared with most of its alternatives. Apple might not have invented the GUI, but in helping to popularise it has immeasurably improved our lives with technology.

The rainbow-coloured Apple with the bite taken out became something of an icon (gedditt?) for the free-spirited hippy at work and play. Such is the brand loyalty that these almost life-changing experiences engender that Apple has sailed on a tide of goodwill ever since. It even recovered from what looked like terminal decline in the late Nineties, before it was re-energised by the return of the prodigal son, Steve Jobs.

 

High expectations

Like most of its technology rivals today, Apple has come to rely on an army of workers in China and the Far East to manufacture its latest generation of gadgets. But Apple’s predicament is probably more acute than its competitors. Its offering is both highly innovative and overtly ‘people-centred’ – technology for the rest of us.

Such a mission generates high expectations, making the contrast between its desirable bits of kit and the apparent misery of those who make them a troubling one. This alone means it is probably judged more keenly than its competitors but, in addition, it’s also the world’s wealthiest company, with a $98bn cash mountain, and the most admired too – as named by Fortune in 2011 for the fourth consecutive year. Apple has further to fall than anyone else.

It’s ironic that having done so much to create the global internet community, Apple kept shtum for so long on the subject of working conditions at Chenzhen as news of suicides and protests in China sparked unflattering debate on the web.

 

Honesty dividend

But the company has obviously calculated that being more open, even if it means exposing problems, is the right thing to do and could bring a dividend for the brand. For a company so obsessed with supplier secrecy, this is a cultural change.

Of course, Apple’s response still does not represent a full-scale CSR policy, even if it is moving, grudgingly, in that direction. While Apple has done good things that a CSR function might have delivered, such as its social responsibility initiative, it would have probably reaped more credit had it, for instance, removed toxic metals from its computers without Greenpeace being on its case.

Perhaps it has finally decided to Think Different because, as Benjamin Franklin once put it: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

• Originally published in Ethical Performance in March 2012

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peterbatt

Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

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