Conditions are Slowly Improving in Chinese Factories

Final chapter of the I-Economy

Apple’s association with the “sweatshop” manufacturing plants of China and various other countries has been under intense scrutiny for the past few years. The scrutiny culminated in a series of articles by The New York Times under the overarching title of the “iEconomy,” where the technology industry – with Apple at the center – was slammed for their practices of employing cheap labor and allowing dangerous working conditions in return for higher profitability margins. Since then, various changes have taken place throughout the supply chain of nearly every consumer electronics company.

Apple, to their credit, has taken a lead in this charge. While many feel that the Cupertino company was unfairly slighted in The New York Times‘ iEconomy series, Apple has since upped both their financial support and oversight across the board. In the latest installment of the iEconomy series, The New York Times notes the following change:

CHENGDU, China — One day last summer, Pu Xiaolan was halfway through a shift inspecting iPad cases when she received a beige wooden chair with white stripes and a high, sturdy back.

At first, Ms. Pu wondered if someone had made a mistake. But when her bosses walked by, they just nodded curtly. So Ms. Pu gently sat down and leaned back. Her body relaxed.

The rumors were true.

Apparently, changes as simple as offering a chair for comfort are being made across Foxconn, which is the largest private employer in China and Apple’s preferred partner for manufacturing responsibilities. Notorious as being incredibly harsh on their workers, Foxconn’s global image has been in shambles due to the increased interest in Apple’s supplier situation.

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The blame also was shared equally between Foxconn and Apple: after all, Foxconn was being hired by Apple to create an unprecedented number of electronics for margins that were constantly being pushed down to increase profitability. While Foxconn does assemble products for various other companies, Apple is by far their largest partner. Many felt that Apple had an obligation, both as the largest corporation in the world and as a company that strives to stand out among the pack, to improve these conditions in a noticeable way.

And so, it seems, they did:

But in March, unbeknown to Ms. Pu, a critical meeting had occurred between Foxconn’s top executives and a high-ranking Apple official. The companies had committed themselves to a series of wide-ranging reforms. Foxconn, China’s largest private employer, pledged to sharply curtail workers’ hours and significantly increase wages — reforms that, if fully carried out next year as planned, could create a ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry, employment experts say.

The cynical will see this as Apple simply caving to intense public criticism. Others will see this as a company doing what is right. Regardless, based on the evidence from The New York Times, the change is happening. Yes, it is happening slower than most would prefer, but it is happening.

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The changes aren’t just inside of the manufacturers, though. Apple has reportedly “tripled” staff that works to oversee the supply chain and its laborers, with most working in Apple’s Cupertino campus. As Apple expands its manufacturing base into first-world countries such as the United States, such increased oversight is going to be necessary.

It doesn’t stop with Apple, though: companies like HP and Intel are stating that Apple’s lead is something that must be followed.

Executives at companies like Hewlett-Packard and Intel say those shifts have convinced many electronics companies that they must also overhaul how they interact with foreign plants and workers — often at a cost to their bottom lines, though, analysts say, probably not so much as to affect consumer prices.

The entire industry is changing in response to the increased sensitivity of the public at large. Whether or not Apple deserves any credit for this change is a moot point; this change should never have been necessary. Regardless, the conditions for the workers who make the devices we all love, whether it’s an iPhone 5, Galaxy S III, or Nexus 4, or something else entirely, are slowly but surely being improved.

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