At first, there seems to be a banal inevitability to headlines about Apple benefitting from shady labor practices, which makes it easy to sweep reports that Apple’s flagship luxury phone, the iPhone X, was reportedly manufactured using illegal student labor. Much like news about the president saying terrible, indefensible things or that yet another beloved media icon is facing allegations of being a sexual predator, it’s almost part of the background radiation of our times; Al Franken has been accused of assaulting a sleeping woman, and the most popular phone in the world is reportedly being built by exploited Chinese labor.
What else is new?
That attitude, however, may not apply here; we live in strange and angry times, and the vox populi is much less forgiving these days than it might have been even eighteen months ago, let alone in 2012 when Foxconn’s illegal practices were first brought to light in a partially-retracted episode of NPR’s This American Life. The Chinese manufacturing giant – one of Apple’s biggest partners in the world – has, despite that retraction, been plagued by accusations of unethical practices. It’s unfortunately a common woe in the technology sector, but one which Apple, due to its visibility and leadership, is uniquely vulnerable to. Foxconn in particular has been noted for a rash of worker suicides since 2010 at its massive plant in Longhua where the bulk of Apple products are assembled.
So the fact that Foxconn is yet again in the news for engaging in illegal labor practices isn’t surprising, but it’s something Apple can’t afford to sweep under the rug.
Here’s the skinny, in case you’ve missed it under the crushing weight of the looming destruction of net neutrality and the president threatening nuclear war with North Korea: six high school students have come forward accusing Foxconn of making them work long hours of illegal overtime as the company struggled to catch up after summer production delays of the iPhone X. The students maintain they were forced to work there by their school in order to graduate, while both Foxconn and their school maintain the work was voluntary; for its part, the local government of Henan province mandated that student labor, where available, be sent to Foxconn to help meet demand.
In other words, it’s a scandal where no one looks good. And while, in the annals of labor disputes generally and of Foxconn specifically, it isn’t the biggest scandal in the world, it only shines a light on an ongoing story that Apple would certainly wish away if it could: its inability to reliably supply the world with its coveted products without resorting to partnerships with demonstrably unethical companies like Foxconn and its ongoing willingness to tolerate questionable, if not illegal labor practices.
There’s no way to know as of this writing if the story will spin out into a bigger discussion and critique of Apple’s storied ability to look the other way (although, as someone who has spent a lot of time immersed in child labor issues, it probably should), but in the event it does, Apple’s response is going to be vitally important. While nobody expects it to sever ties with Foxconn – it’s easier to fire Charlie Rose than to terminate a major production agreement that your company depends on for existence – Apple has to come up with a substantive response that isn’t just smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors being ultimately what Apple does best. And as we learned from Al Franken, even a great apology may not necessarily fix anything.
The issue at hand is that Apple cannot easily extricate itself from Foxconn and ultimately isn’t responsible for what Foxconn does, as it’s a separate company of which Apple is merely a client. But, considering the long-standing situation regarding Foxconn, and Apple’s continued refusal to meaningfully address labor practices in what is ultimately its supply line, at the barest minimum we’re looking at a ticking time bomb that Apple has to get out in front of. And the best way to start doing that is with a message.
“It has been brought to our attention,” it would perhaps begin, “that Foxconn, one of the major suppliers of Apple products, has been engaging in unethical and exploitative labor practices. While we are unable at this time to fully withdraw from doing business with it, we’ve made it clear that we will begin looking for other suppliers who better represent Apple’s values. Additionally, we’re beginning a thorough and ongoing audit of our entire supply chain to ensure we are not participating in worker exploitation. Facilities we do business with are required to meet a series of generous benchmarks, or we will begin the process of withdrawal. Always. We’re very thankful for your patience during this time of transition.”
Apple, of course, would then have to actually perform this perpetual self-audit, but that’s a level of public-facing accountability the world’s dominant tech company of the last two decades has not demonstrated to well, and which it will have to maintain in order to assure itself not only of customer excite, but the necessary public goodwill needed to maintain it for the long haul.
Because even if it’s not this scandal that finally blows up in its face, it’s painfully evident that Apple seems willing to look the other way when it comes to Foxconn’s failures in the name of profitability and expediency, which means the scandals will keep coming until irreparable damage is done. This pattern is manifest in every facet of our society – from politics to entertainment and back again – where the exploitation of the weak is permitted in the service of the powerful. But a demand for a reckoning has been sweeping over the public consciousness, and when it comes to one of the most ubiquitous brands on the planet, that reckoning is simply a matter of time.