Taghuman rights

Apple’s responsibility – aka what can we demand from our gadget dealers?

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“Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.” – Apple.com/environment

Last month, the New York Times published an article about the human cost of the iPad. It is a shocking, appalling and sadly an entirely unexpected report of the working conditions in Apple’s production plants in China, namely the one of Foxconn.

Up front, let’s be clear: This focuses on Apple, but similar reports could most likely be written about every single bigger electronics company as well as any of Foxconn’s competitors. Foxconn is one of the world’s largest producer of electronics. So while these two have been singled out, there’s a larger issue at stake here. Let’s also be clear that this doesn’t excuse anything.

All quotes are from the above-mentioned NYTimes article.

“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” said Li Mingqi, who until April worked in management at Foxconn Technology , one of Apple’s most important manufacturing partners. Mr. Li, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal, helped manage the Chengdu factory where the explosion occurred. “Workers’ welfare has nothing to do with their interests,” he said.

Just a few days before the article appeared in the NYTimes, …

(…) Apple reported one of the most lucrative quarters of any corporation in history, with $13.06 billion in profits on $46.3 billion in sales. Its sales would have been even higher, executives said, if overseas factories had been able to produce more.

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

So who’s to blame here is a tough call to make. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should just go about our business. We as consumers are responsible — and that includes me personally, and maybe you, too — for buying all these gadgets and turning a blind eye on where they come from. The big production companies like Foxconn are responsible, because they work abuse their workers in the reprehensible way they do. And Apple (like their industry partners/competitors) is responsible, maybe most so. It is their management that decides to stick to these production plants and the way they operate, to not push them hard to demand better working conditions, to not be willing to give up a small chunk of their insane margin & profits and pass down a bit of it to the people building their products.

Just to be clear. This is Apple’s responsibility to be better than the bare minimum, or anything mediocre. If you claim excellence and a leadership position, you got to act accordingly. You’re the leading design company and know what’s best for you users, and you insist on providing the best experience out there? In other words, you demand the lead position from your designers? Then you better demand the same from your production.

At the same time, we as buyers need to ask ourselves: What do we demand from the companies that produce our gadgets?

Now, where all parties are involved and bear some part of responsibility, aka Any Real-Life Situation In A Global Economy, it’s easy to weasel out. “But it’s you, too, and they do it too, and these guys over there!” And by shifting and spreading responsibility around, we get away from the thing we discuss.

Let’s not do that.

We’ll never find one person/company to hold responsible, just as we often won’t be able to completely switch our personal behaviors radically in hope of some later change. On the one hand, everybody needs to do what they can, on the other – and I can’t overstate that – I think we should lean hard on these companies whose products we buy. In fact, I think this might sometimes be more effective than any boycott.

So yes, as a paying customer I demand that Apple takes the human rights of their factory workers seriously and goes way(!) beyond the market average in doing so. “But prices will go up,” the usual argument goes, “who’s going to pay for all that?” If those changes mean slightly higher prices for me, fine, I’m willing to bear some of that load. But I seriously expect a big chunk to come out of that hilariously high hardware margin and profit. A company that has higher revenues, margins and cash reserves than the rest of the field should well and truly put some of that money to good use. And I don’t mean a new, beefed up DRM. I mean some serious change of business.

Disrupting business? Fine, whatever. Disrupting production chains and post-consumer lifecycles, that’s the next frontier. It’d be nice to see Apple take the lead there.

Beijing 2008: Reporters and bloggers face threats

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Reporters Without Borders: Beijing 2008Sadly, the whole idea of giving the Olympic Games to China in order to get the government to respects human and media rights more has turned out to be a complete and utter failure. Without much commenting on my behalf, let me point out just some of the recent findings of human rights organizations.

Amnesty International (ai) just published their report “Chinese Authorities’ Broken Promises Threaten Olympic Legacy” in which they state:

In the run-up to the Olympics, the Chinese authorities have locked up, put under house arrest and forcibly removed individuals they believe may threaten the image of “stability” and “harmony” they want to present to the world.

Internet censorships continues, even in the confined Olympic media center:

Reports have just confirmed that foreign journalists working from the Olympics press centre in Beijing are unable to access amnesty.org, the Amnesty International website. In addition, The China Debate, a site recently launched by Amnesty International as a forum to discuss human rights has been blocked in China. A number of other websites are also reported to have been blocked, including Taiwan newspaper Liberty Times and the Chinese versions of both Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the BBC. This flies in the face of official promises to ensure “complete media freedom” for the Games. Internet control and censorship is increasing as the Olympics approach. Many other sites, including several reporting on HIV/AIDS issues in Beijing, have been targeted.

What’s more, reporters and activists (including, I suspect, bloggers) face legal and other threats:

Amnesty International believes that local activists and journalists working on human rights issues in China are at particular risk of abuse during the Games.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) confirms this situation:

Chinese authorities deleted an Internet link to an article that appeared on 17 July 2008 in the prominent Chinese newspaper Xinjingbao (Beijing News) of an interview with a US photographer of Hong Kong origin, Liu Xiangcheng, who worked in China during the 1980s. They acted over a small photo showing men with bullet wounds following the 1989 military crackdown against the Tiananmen Square uprising. (…) The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that the authorities also immediately demanded the removal of the newspaper from newsstands and censorship of the article online. The same source said that several staff on the paper, the editor and the journalist, were facing legal proceedings.

RSF calls for a boycott of the games (PDF). Amnesty International takes a slightly different approach. In cooperation with, as far as I can tell, New Zealand students, they organize the Freedom Challenge 08 in which so-called freedom teams rally support for human rights in China.

Do you know of any valid, up-to-date information sources on the situation for bloggers in China these days?