A huge A1 story in The New York Times about safety problems at Chinese electronics factories is sure to turn up the heat on Apple as Americans become more and more aware of the true price of their beloved gadgets. The deep investigation into Apple's supplier practices opens with the horrifying images of an explosion that killed four people at a Foxconn factory making iPads in Chengdu last May:
Two people were killed immediately, and over a dozen others hurt. As the injured were rushed into ambulances, one in particular stood out. His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose.
Reporters Charles Duhigg and David Barboza go on to detail the lengthy charges of worker abuse and safety violations that seem to plague many of the companies that Apple relies on overseas, while also tying it to the human story of Lai Xiaodong, the young man who lost his life in that blast. Oddly, it is Apple's own internal reports that reveal most of these problems to Western observers, but attempts to correct the issues and improve the fortunes of laborers have a tendency to clash with the company's own insistence on low costs and high volume. Their own "code of conduct" is routinely violated by companies that are simultaneously being squeezed by Apple's other codes:
“The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,” said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. “And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.”
According to the story, more than half of Apple's suppliers have violated the codes every year since 2007, but few, if any, have lost their contracts due to safety. As one former Apple executive put it, “If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”
To be sure Apple is not the only American manufacturer that takes advantage of cheap labor and supply advantages offered by China. But given the crowing over their recent $46 billion quarter and a flattering State of the Union mention this week, the Cupertino company is quickly becoming the face of globalization's successes and faults. Apple still remains a darling of the press of and its legions of customers, of course, but as more stories like this, or Mike Daisey's epic tales of his own visits to Foxconn, continue to gain traction — and record profits continue to stretch belief — can it be too long before Apple joins the ranks of those hated monsters of capitalism, the oil companies? In the same way that BP became the poster of child of irresponsibly and greed, will Americans soon demand government intervention, "windfall taxes," and greater corporate responsibility. Or will we continue to not mind how are glowing screens get to us as long as they work right?