Not all laptops are created equally, or so says JW Sherman.
When was the last time you made a decision that in some way inconvenienced yourself because of a principle you considered worth the trouble? It is something I admit I have done from time to time, but probably not nearly enough.
I do not mean being put in the position of facing any real personal peril. For those rare souls, the greatest of admiration is warranted. No, what I am talking about are those smaller, more mundane decisions that we might face on almost any day, but still contain an ethical choice.
Take a visit to the supermarket, for instance: do you make sure to buy free-range eggs and no genetically modified produce? These are small decisions in the scheme of things, but ones in which you take a position that in some way says, “This is what I think is right and acceptable.”
I raise this question now as I happened to note the release in mid-February of Apple’s annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report. This document details the findings of its audits into the working conditions and manufacturing practices of the many hundreds of suppliers from around the world who contribute to the making of its omnipresent products.
Over the last several years issues surrounding conditions for workers at the company’s suppliers have made worldwide headlines, and generally not in a positive way. So, the production of the report (which is heavy with images of smiling workers and passages on the company’s programs) in itself is an exercise in restoring some shine to Apple’s image.
Take the title for instance, which is a clever bit of phrasing. It positions the suppliers, rather than Apple, at the centre of responsibility for ensuring adequate working conditions. This is not to say the company has not made considerable efforts to ensure its standards are adhered to. In 2013 they conducted 451 audits at all levels of the supply chain (an increase of 51 percent over the previous year) covering facilities in which nearly 1.5 million people were employed.
While not understating the enormous challenge of managing such a huge system of global suppliers, staying on top of these issues will require ongoing diligence. For instance, the audits found 23 workers who had been employed underage, down from more 100 the previous year. It also found that 95 percent of suppliers complied with the company’s policy that workers did no more than 60 hours per week, “except in unusual circumstances”, and that all overtime was voluntary.
It has been some time since I have done a 60-hour week, but in the days when I did I was always secure in the knowledge I would be well rewarded for it. A February article from the IDG News Service detailed the lives of some of the employees at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou, China which produces iPhones. Here workers are putting in 10-hour shifts to help make roughly 10,000 handsets each day and earn a base monthly salary of 2,000 yuan, or around $320.
Of course I am aware of the irony that I personally enjoy the lower cost of living here in Asia. However, perhaps it is slightly different to spend only a few dollars for a meal at a family-run noodle shop and amassing among the largest cash holdings of any company in the world via the long hours and low pay of workers in developing countries.
Of course it was the Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn who was largely responsible for bringing the plight of workers in the Apple supply chain to prominence a few years ago. After a spate of suicides among workers at another of Foxconn’s facilities in China in 2010, the low pay, long hours and poor living conditions could no longer be ignored.
And yet, I wonder if they were largely ignored, apart from in the press where much mileage was made out of the story. I don’t recall hearing calls for the boycott of Apple products, or any protests outside their sleek stores. Perhaps the oft-talked-about deep affection Apple users have for the company’s products exerted a stronger pull.
Which brings me, rather circuitously and at some length, back to my initial question: how often do we make a decision based on what we believe is acceptable rather than for convenience or to satisfy our desires? It is very much a question that each individual will have a separate answer to.
For instance, I personally do not have a problem with genetically-modified crops (a discussion for another day), but several years ago I took the decision to purchase a computer made in Richmond, Virginia, to be exact. It was around the same price as an Apple machine, and a little more trouble to service when you’re not in the United States, but it was a personal choice to support American jobs and not reward what I felt was unfair treatment to workers in developing countries.
It may be a fairly insignificant decision in the bigger scheme of things, but it was my take on what I thought was right and acceptable.
JW Sherman is an American management consultant who has been living in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years.