You probably remember the Foxconn explosion from last May that killed four people and left 18 others seriously injured. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times have a massive profile on the human side of a totally avoidable dust explosion in a plant frantically rushing to keep up with demand for iPads, and all the negligence that went into it.
To say things weren't at all in line with Steve Jobs's 2010 impression of the factories was of "restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools" would be a massive understatement. Workers say that those are a thin layer of icing on a very rotten cake. Internally, Apple seems to agree, with a former executive giving probably the starkest comment of the piece:
"We're trying really hard to make things better," said one former Apple executive. "But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from."
It's important to note that other companies have been found to have terrible working conditions as well. The Times points out that "Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others" have all had the finger pointed at them. But because of Apple's uncommonly exacting attention to detail, suppliers' profits are pinched in almost every facet of manufacturing. That in turn leads to them to cut corners, use cheaper safety equipment or more dangerous ingredients to achieve the same end effect:
"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 per cent price cut."
To its credit, Apple has since undertaken a huge if seemingly ineffective campaign to improve conditions. It has educated over a million workers on their rights in the workplace and better practices. It's also conducted hundreds of audits per year to find and try to correct the problems with threats of taking its business elsewhere. The Times notes, however, that these threats have mostly rung hollow, since only 15 suppliers have been axed since 2007, despite hundreds of violations. The ineffectiveness of Apple's correction system was especially tragic leading up to the explosion:
Just two weeks before the explosion, an advocacy group in Hong Kong published a report warning of unsafe conditions at the Chengdu plant, including problems with aluminium dust. The group, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, or Sacom, had videotaped workers covered with tiny aluminium particles. "Occupational health and safety issues in Chengdu are alarming," the report read. "Workers also highlight the problem of poor ventilation and inadequate personal protective equipment."
No one ever responded to the report.
More than the human face (and cost) this puts to your iPad or any other gadget you own, this should put that same face to every pissant little inconvenience you encounter having to do with them. iPad orders backlogged? You have to sit on your arse and wait for FedEx to update your shipping information; workers overseas have to slave away working unforgiving hours to try to meet demand. You should absolutely read the entire feature at the New York Times for the full picture, including a heartbreaking look at one 26-year-old victim who had only recently started at the factory. [NYT]