April 9, 2012

Glass Houses: Tech manufactures remain silent on Apple’s labor troubles


While the media has steadily bombarded Apple.inc for the wretched working conditions in their overseas factories, the tech giant’s chief competitors have remained silent. This is strange considering these same players caw and crow over every inch of ground they beat apple for. One would think that a scandal of this substance would have more than a few of these rivals casting stones.

But then there’s that old adage about people who live in glass houses. Over at the New York TimesBits blog they have some theories about just that:

Over the past week I have asked Hewlett-Packard, SamsungMicrosoft, DellAmazonBarnes & Noble and Lenovo about their reports on labor conditions. Many, if not all, of these electronics makers also use Foxconn.

Most responded with a boilerplate public relations message. Some didn’t even respond. The answer from Barnes & Noble, the maker of the Nook e-reader, was typical. Mary Ellen Keating, a senior vice president, said only, “We don’t comment on our supply chain vendors.” Ms. Keating wouldn’t say why Barnes & Noble does not discuss its manufacturing.

Lenovo e-mailed an off-topic report on sustainability.

Samsung, which sells far more cellphones than Apples does, gave no response.

Although some technology companies share some information about their audits, none go into detail about the violations they find or what they are doing to fix problems.

Foxconn for those of you keeping score, has a factory located in Shenzen, China, where the working conditions are considered among the worst in the world.

What is worse still is that these other companies not only join Apple in manufacturing with Foxconn, but they might be far less engaged in monitoring the factory’s workings. Again, the NYT writes:

When I asked these electronics makers why they have chosen not to join the Fair Labor Association, several cited their membership in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a consortium of electronics manufacturers that says it sets standards for ethics, labor practices and working conditions.

Yet the coalition, which was created in 2004, is often criticized by activists as a fig leaf for electronics manufacturers. They say the organization hasn’t had any effect on conditions or worker abuses. Realistically, if the consortium were effective in its monitoring, the electronics industry would not be under the scrutiny it is today. No company has ever been asked to leave the coalition for failing to fix worker problems.

The picture is pretty clear. These companies are aware of Foxconn’s policies and are also unwilling to engage in any sort of dialogue about how to fix the problems, source manufacturing elsewhere or do anything really, about the heinous conditions people are working in to manufacture their wares.

And why should they? Especially when consumers clearly don’t care either.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.