Issues with the iPad

March 16, 2012

Apple
unveiled the iPad 3 last week; it's scheduled to be released today. On Sunday
the company announced that pre-ordered devices were sold out.
The news came weeks after Apple's annual shareholders' meeting, at which it reported that it has nearly $100 billion in
cash
.

Amid
its latest triumphs, the company continues to face criticism over labor
practices at Foxconn and its other suppliers in China. While such allegations
are not new, recent reports by This
American Life
and the New
York Times
have raised public awareness of long hours, low
wages, cramped dormitories and hazardous working conditions that have resulted
in deaths and injuries for Chinese employees.

Apple has taken steps to improve conditions. But protestors at Apple stores and online petitions have demanded that the company do
more to protect the people who make its products. While the worker abuse has
been universally condemned, several people have pointed to obstacles that
inhibit significant, lasting reforms:

  • Steve Hehn observes that Apple
    appears to "care deeply about improving working conditions and environmental
    safety," but "even a company as controlling as Apple can have a hard time
    managing a supply chain in China."
  • Beenish Ahmed notes that Apple's
    success is directly tied to its overseas suppliers: "Apple's profit margins
    havewidenedin recent years to over 30 percent, while
    Foxconn's have narrowed to around 1.5 percent.... To make any real change, Apple
    will eventually have to take a hit to its profitability. Rotating tasks among
    workers might help prevent repetitive motion injuries, for example, but it will
    rake up costs in training and logistics."
  • Meggin Thwing Eastman cites a
    "huge demand for Apple products and the quick turnaround times required for a
    'cool' new upgrade every year." Moreover, she points to Apple's notorious
    culture of secrecy that allows it to be "less responsive to outside
    organizations."
  • David Pogue reminds us that Apple
    is not the only company to benefit from overseas labor; after all, Foxconn also
    produces goods for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Dell, Hewlett-Packard,
    Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony and Panasonic. He concludes, "The issue is
    complicated. It's upsetting. We, the consumers, want our shiny electronics. We
    want them cheap, yet we want them built by well-paid, healthy workers. But
    apparently, we can't have both."

As Americans, we've been confronted many times
by the unethical labor practices that support our consumer goods. But this
example is particularly disturbing because many of us revere Apple for its
business savvy and its ability to continually produce new, high-demand products--factors
that seem to contribute to the problem.