The Foxconn sweatshop scandal goes far beyond Apple. Check the brand name of the device that you’re reading this on. Google it, chances are that some part of it has passed through the hands of the factory workers at Foxconn. Those same workers who have been driven to suicide in protest at their working conditions. So we can’t do the ethical-consumer side-step and avoid complicity just by buying electronics that are stamped with a different name: there is no such thing as a fairly traded computer or smart phone.
What of Apple’s own response? In my view they too are neatly dodging the real issue. When you hear that a problem, any problem, is going to be solved with an audit, be suspicious. It’s often the final response of a corporation found guilty of wrongdoing, but in reality it’s no more than a spit and a promise. When complete denial, passing the buck, and excuse-making have run their course, it’s the next step of minimal action a company can take. If you use the right words, you can make doing very little sound like a solution. In the case of Foxconn’s response to earlier employee suicides at their factory they brought in counsellors, offered a 24 hour helpline, and notoriously put up safety nets to catch any further embarrassing suicides. Anything short of the profit-denting measure of ending the exploitation of cheap labour of course.
Apple have their own internal auditing system, which they proudly describe on their website as “comprehensive” and “in-person”. However it is described, however many pages on their website are devoted to the process, however many people they employ to investigate, type up reports and spin them, it has clearly failed to protect basic human rights at one of their largest suppliers. Apple are also already a member of the Fair Labour Association [FLA], who have been brought in with such fanfare as an “independent group” to investigate conditions at Foxconn. Given the extent of the problems that have been revealed at Foxconn, over the last months and years, it seems odd that such a commitment to transparency has not already led to more in-depth enquiries. Well, it would seem odd, if you weren’t aware that the FLA are largely funded by the organisations that they monitor, and are seen by many of those in the know as being professional white-washers.
Working conditions improve when people can collectively bargain for a better deal on their own behalf. Shiny “Corporate Social Responsibility” brochures and a touch of well-advertised philanthropy on top has never, and will never, lift factory workers out of dead-end poverty and dependency. But it can often seem as workers in the Global South are stuck in the obscure mire of global supply chains that make the traditional forms of union organising inadequate. What’s the point of demanding better wages if your distant employer can just move production elsewhere in a matter of weeks and leave you in an even worse situation?
Luckily there are already promising models that can bring about real improvements. One of these is the Worker Rights Consortium, an initiative that has taken root in American universities and is now spreading to Britain. Currently only an option in the garment industry, this model sees large buyers, such as universities, demanding genuine transparency in return for their custom, which then allows workers abroad to organise without risk of silent factory closures or hidden repression. This is the upside of globalisation, the positive information-sharing and international solidarity, often talked up but little seen. At present there is no equivalent organisation providing the same service in the electronics industry, but if we refuse to be fobbed off by audits and excuses, then hopefully we’ll soon see progress here too.