Activists and journalists sparked a public debate and ignited a turnaround in one of the world’s most successful companies.
By Joanne Bauer
Much has been written on these pages about Apple’s recent supply chain troubles. Less is known about the Chinese activists behind the scenes who fought to make this issue public and stop abuses towards Chinese workers and communities.
Meet Li Qiang, Liu Zhiyi, Debby Chan, and Ma Jun.
Li Qiang is Executive Director of New York-based China Labor Watch, which with its network of mainland China labor activists, began reporting on labor conditions at mainland factories of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant and Apple supplier Foxconn, starting in 2008.
In 2010, Liu Zhiyi was a 23-year-old intern with the respected mainland Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekend. After a spate of suicides at Foxconn’s massive Shenzhen factory, the paper decided to launch an underground investigation of Foxconn’s plant. As all of the full-time reporters who had tried to pose as job seekers were rejected by Foxconn for being too old, Liu Zhiyi decided to try and was immediately hired. His report, which appeared in full in both Chinese and English, provided a window on to the hopeless existence of Foxconn’s disheartened young workers.
Apple Ignores The Evidence
Debby Chan is a project officer at Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), which also uses student volunteers posing as job seekers in the factories to acquire first-hand information about factory conditions. Since 2009 SACOM has followed the plight of workers at another Taiwanese-owned factory in Jiangsu Province who were exposed to highly toxic N-Hexane in the assembly line for Apple products. Although Apple acknowledged this problem in its 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report, it repeatedly ignored the disabled workers pleas for the company’s help.
Ma Jun is Executive Director of Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, and considered one of China’s leading environmentalists. He leads a coalition of Chinese environmental NGOs that in 2010 began linking 29 major IT brands with suppliers who dumped heavy metals into China's water bodies.
After several months of engagement with the brands over his groups’ findings, only Apple refused, dismissing the notion that the named suppliers were theirs. Ma Jun’s group followed up with two successive reports focused solely on Apple’s supply chain record – and, except for its annual Supplier Responsibility Report (which selectively addressed the concerns) Apple remained silent.
Consumers Ignored the Evidence
Over the past couple of years Apple’s failure to respond to this stream of evidence of trouble in its supply chain has been a subject of discussion in the courses on business and human rights that I teach at Columbia University.
We compare the situation of Apple to the case of Nike in the 1990s and the revelation of children working in the Cambodian and Pakistani factories that stitch Nike shoes and soccer balls. In the case of Nike, labor activists were able to rapidly launch a successful boycott, winning over consumers who were ready to shun Nike for other sneaker brands, such as Reebok and New Balance.
Yet while Nike and Apple share the fact of being the leading company in their industry, there is a salient difference: as my Mac Book-, iPad-, iPhone-porting students reluctantly admit, as abhorrent as they found Apple’s behavior towards its suppliers and refusal to engage with the tireless Chinese labor and environmental campaigners who asked only that Apple look at the evidence they had collected, they were not ready to give up their Apple products by which they have come to conduct so much of their student, professional and personal lives.
Have we reached the limits of advocacy, we pondered, when we are unable to mount a credible boycott against the offending company?
Public Debate Sparks Corporate Action
Over the past few months all that has changed as the news of Apple’s conduct spread through the major media, penetrating the public consciousness, and igniting a public debate about who makes their coveted products.
And Apple finally acted, by meeting with the Chinese environmental NGOs – and most recently agreeing to jointly audit the suspected factories, by publishing most of its supplier list, and by becoming the first electronics firm to join the Fair Labor Association and accede to that organization’s auditing. Students have been emailing me elated at the change, at the fact that it was possible to move a company that might otherwise have just ignored the problems and gone on with business as usual.
For many readers, the decision of Apple to get off the dime and take seriously its responsibility for its harm to Chinese workers and communities is a no-brainer. The company was pushed to the point where its brand image was at risk and where Apple’s customers were signaling loud and clear – without even having to utter the “B” word – that the behavior was unacceptable.
And yet the public outrage and the turn-around by Apple still took me by surprise. In the end, I suspect what brought Apple around is that it realized that Debby Chan, Ma Jun and their colleagues were not about to give up.
It underscores a salient question of my courses: What brings a company to change its behavior and why? Can we rely upon consumers who say they care about how their products are made to walk the talk?
Sometimes they will, more often they will not, either because even when they have the knowledge they are not convinced that an alternative brand is any more responsibly made or because they doubt the efficacy of their individual purchasing choices.
Will businesses compete for a race to the top, aligning business outcomes and social responsibility? If anything, the Apple case demonstrates the opposite. We can hope that things are moving in that direction as we seek out better solutions. In the meantime, we have to thank the tireless, under-resourced human rights advocates who wouldn’t let go – and who will have to work harder and more concertedly and collaboratively to sustain the pressure on a company to make it “a no-brainer” for the company to change its ways.