I’ve been working on a new textbook on employment and labour law and industrial relations for some time now. This blog is in fact an ongoing source of material for that book. I have been telling friends for a couple of years that I want to make the book available electronically to students who would prefer not to lug around the paper textbook. I think electronic texts are inevitable. I’ve looked into
what’s available, and was surprised that Apple and some of the other textbook manufacturers hadn’t created a user-friendly electronic textbook platform. I talked to people about developing my own.
However, last week, Apple finally got around to announcing its plans for the future of the textbook. It’s called iBooks, and in Apple’s usual modest way, the company claims it will change the future of the textbook industry.
It might. But as much as I love the Apple platform, can I really use Apple ibook, particularly one that relies on the ipad for delivery?
Apple has known about serious problems with labour conditions in their manufacturing facilities for years, and yet it has failed to take sufficient steps to remedy the problem. Apple has the power to influence changes, but it is choosing not to exercise it to the fullest extent, while its profits soar.
Recent revelations in the New York Times are just the latest stories to reach Westerners. Safety problems, excessively long hours, crowded living quarters, hazardous waste, under age workers, low pay. Most of the stories relate to Foxconn, a huge company employing hundreds of millions of Chinese workers in Guangdong Province. Stories about employees committing suicide, and Foxconn building safety nets to catch jumping employees hit the news last year.
Like most large multinationals, Apple has a vendor code of conduct. Here it is. It has all the standard labour requirements: no harassment or discrimination, 60 hour work weeks, prohibitions on child labour, overtime pay, health and safety, and freedom of association. However, the Apple Code is weaker than many of the modern day codes seen in the apparel and sportswear industry in that most of its standards are only require compliance with “applicable national laws”. That means that Apple mostly requires only that suppliers comply with the base minimum standards in the country the supplier operates in. The standard codes produced by the Workers’ Rights Consortium and other multi-stakeholder codes require a “living wage” rather than just compliance with national minimum wage laws.
Moreover, Apple’s monitoring and public dissemination of monitoring results is very low, and its response to violations is weak. Does Apple dispute that there are serious problems at Foxconn? Apple’s CEO Tim Cook “expressed outrage” at reports of unsafe working conditions at its suppliers. So, is Apple going to stop sourcing from that company? Do you think it should?
The electronics industry has be spared the negative spotlight that has been shone at the apparel, footwear, sportswear, and toy industries. I have described some of those developments in this paper. Now, the spotlight is shifting to the electronics industry. My guess is we will find similarities in how the electronics companies respond and how the apparel companies did initially in the 1990s. That involved a lot of bald claims that the problems are being overblown by activists and the media, that they are well on top of the problem, that they have a strong code and effective monitoring. They will find that those claims don’t stop the negative attention. Eventually, Apple and its competitors will need to start cancelling orders with suppliers who do not improve, and will need to become far more transparent.
There are some signs of that movement. Apple recently published its supplier list, a development I predicted recently in an interview with The Financial Times. You can find the list on this page, along with other information on Apple’s supplier monitoring. Unlike the apparel companies that have disclosed, the Apple list doesn’t give contact information (addresses). However, many of the Apple suppliers are well known anyways, such us Foxconn. The real test for Apple and its competitors will be how they respond to knowledge of labour abuses in their supplier factories. So far, that response seems to be a shrug of the shoulders while they collect their cash.
Apple is the big fish, so it will attract the most negative publicity, as did companies like Nike, Reebok, and The Gap in the 1990s. There is no reason to believe Apple’s competitors are any better–in fact, they may be doing even less to improve labour conditions since they are able to fly under the radar.
So, to return to my initial question: Can a labour law professor really publish a textbook about labour law on an Apple platform for an ipad made at Foxconn?
Can any self-respecting professor? Indeed, perhaps academics have an opportunity to influence Apple’s behaviour by boycotting the Apple ibook platform. Should I start that boycott?