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Apple’s social responsibility nightmare

Sun Danyong committed suicide last year. (Photo credit: Brisbane Times)

Apple is making the headlines again lately, and this time, it’s not with good news. Foxconn, a major electronics manufacturer that assembles Apple’s iPhones and iPads, has seen yet another employee suicide: the eleventh suicide attempt in the last year, and ninth successful one. Nan Gang, a 21-year old employee of the company, died after jumping off the four-storey building. But wait – this isn’t new. We’ve seen this before. The question is why is it still happening, and happening so frequently.

Last year, the world learned of another worker who took his own life. Sun Danyong, a 25-year old recent university graduate reported that one of the Apple prototype phones had gone missing. He was subsequently interrogated repeatedly, and had his apartment searched. Several days later, he was dead – having jumped out of a twelfth floor window of his building.

In 2006, Apple was shaken by reports in the Daily Mail that provided details and images of the harsh working conditions where iPods are made. In one of the Foxconn factories, each worker dorm room was found to house 100 low-paid workers where there was also a full ban in place on any visits to workers from anyone outside the plant. In addition to this, workers were pushed to work for up to 15 hours a day and punished severely for actions as simple as not standing still in the assembly line. At the time, Apple investigated the conditions and produced a report announcing that the majority of Apple’s policies were met, although admitting that there a few areas that needed to be addressed.

Something doesn’t seem right here. Especially because now, Foxconn is being investigated yet again, and more questions are being raised about its work environment and the way it treats its employees in its factories. A militaristic working style, harsh working conditions, and long work hours are phrases that have described Foxconn in the past and continue to be used now.

This incident is even more significant in light of Apple’s recent shareholders meeting in Feburary 2010 in which Apple proudly took a strong stand on the leadership position and progress it has made in the area of social responsibility and sustainability. At the meeting, Apple claimed to be the first to work with its suppliers on environmental issues and worker education and protection.

“… other companies just make promises” and attend conferences and events to “schmooze with [environmental groups], but the work ain’t getting done,” whereas Apple is actually taking steps to improve the company’s real-world green credentials and treatment of workers” (as reported by Macworld)

An interesting statement. It looks like Apple just caught a small case of foot-in-mouth disease. Not to say Apple is not taking steps to improve worker treatment, but the results don’t seem to be reflecting their bold statements. Doesn’t seem like the work is getting done in this area either.

It looks like Apple, if they want to truly put their money where their mouths are, need to take a harder stance on their suppliers on workplace standards and the treatment of workers. It would appear that the culture of secrecy has been successfully enforced according to Apple’s requirements – to the point where an employee would choose leaping out of a window to his death than face further interrogation by the company he works for. But what about the worker’s treatment itself? Surely it can be enforced to a far greater extent. Apple certainly has the power, but do they have the actual commitment and conviction?

Only time will tell.

Foxcann Facilities (Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal)

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