On last week’s podcast, STA and I spent a lot of time discussing recent reports of human rights violations at the Apple supplier, Foxconn, in China. Our discussion was based mostly on the recent Nightline report on working conditions at the factory. After finishing the podcast, I decided to do a little more research on how the problem of labor conditions and human rights violations was being framed, what critical discussions were taking place, and what solutions were being offered. My first research stop: Democracy Now! and a report from February 10, 2012: Apple, Accustomed to Profits and Praise, Faces Outcry for Labor Practices at Chinese Factories
I appreciate what Shelby Knox (a feminist activist and subject of a film that I screened for a class last semester: The Education of Shelby Knox) had to say about what is at stake:
We’re asking Apple to make an ethical iPhone. Factories in China and the countries that they’re made suffer horrible labor conditions. And so, we’re asking them to live up to their ethical supplier agreement, make sure that they are under good working conditions, that they’re not using toxins that harm them neurologically, and that they take care of those people as well as they would want their customers to be taken care of.
In the Apple’s ethical supplier agreement that Knox mentions, Apple discusses Labor and Human Rights, Worker Health and Safety and Environmental Impact. I’m particularly interested in the human rights aspect of their code. Key to their focus on human rights is the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and respect. I wonder, what does this actually mean? Here’s how they describe it on their site:
Apple prohibits practices that threaten the rights of workers — even when local laws and customs permit such practices. We’ve taken action toward ending excessive recruitment fees, preventing the hiring of underage workers, and prohibiting discriminatory policies at our suppliers. And as the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association, Apple is setting a new standard in transparency and oversight.
In watching the Democracy Now! video and briefly skimming the New York Times article (which first broke this story in January), I’m struck by how different their accounts of how the workers’ human rights are being violated seem to be from the Nightline video’s depiction of working conditions. While Nightline suggests repeatedly that the work is “hard,” they don’t focus much attention on the details of why it is hard (physically, mentally or psychologically). When is hard work too hard (and demeaning, damaging, a violation of one’s dignity and respect)?
I’m sure that there are some great conversations about how to define/determine dignity and respect for workers in Foxconn factories and I bet, with a little effort, I can find them…