Apple can take the bad publicity, but can your company?
http://fantastic-ideas.com/products/fantastic-columns-plugin Over the last few months, there has been heightened interest in the media about Apple’s responsibility for poor working conditions in their China based factories.
This has included reports of underage employment, draconian style work places, work related suicides and dangerous work conditions resulting in poisoning.It raises the question; who is ultimately responsible for an employees working conditions when the factory is not yours?
The first part of this answer is certainly the factory. The second is the buyer or Apple in this case, an argument which has resulted from public interest and pursuit of these matters, especially when manufacturing in countries like China where cases of poor working conditions are common.
For Apple, after a less than perfect start in China, they quickly realised the importance of taking an active role in employee compliance, even though the factories weren’t their own. In 2008 they commenced annual auditing of their suppliers, put in place a strict Code of Conduct and commenced regular Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports. More recently after the suicide cases at Foxconn, they also introduced training for factory staff. This additional cost satisfies their corporate responsibility and is relied upon when cases like this occur to divert consumer condemnation. Exploiting cheap labour is not a good look for any company and Apple have been proactive in trying to protect their reputation.
In China, similar to any other country, there is legislation in place to protect employee’s rights and working conditions in factories. In fact, the government has developed strict policy outlining employee wage rates, work conditions, social benefits and environmental protection. Policing these laws is the real challenge given China’s size and sheer number of factories.
Ensuring factory compliance in these matters is hard to monitor and can be costly, especially when you don’t have a permanent presence at the factory. One of the most interesting aspects of this debate is cultural misunderstanding and interpretation of what’s right and what is not. To explain what I mean, there is an excellent example in Paul Midler’s book, Poorly Made in China (a really great read if you want to learn more about working with factories in China). Paul lived and worked in China, managing internal factory quality issues on behalf of his American clients. The excerpt is self explanatory;
The hair gel that we produced at the factory was green. One day, I noticed that the worker who filled the gel bottles had a skin condition. His hands were covered with the slick formula, and beneath the green shimmery layer, I could see that the skin on his hands was peeling. Small, raw patches of flesh were exposed, and you didn’t have to be a dermatologist to see that his skin was infected.
“We should probably do something about this one”, I said to Sister [Chinese Factory Owner/Manager], trying to sound calm, while in my head alarm bells were ringing.
Sister did not see the point. “Why?’ she asked”.
“It might be a health issue?”
“But the worker has done nothing wrong. It’s just an allergic reaction”
Trying to press the matter, I suggested that the work might contaminate the product.
Sister twisted the argument. “How can he harm the product when it was the product that caused him the harm?”
She was entirely serious on this point, and she added to her argument that since the worker had been harmed, he should be rewarded by being kept at his post. Removing him from the filling stations might be perceived as punishment, or it might translate into face loss. As she had already established, the worker had done nothing intentional to harm anyone. It was better, in other words, that we keep his infected hands at the filling station. Never mind the business, or the consumer. This was, as she saw it, the right thing to do.
http://mypaloaltoplumberhero.com/?p=75 Poorly Made in China: the insiders account of the tactics behind China’s production game, Paul Midler, 2009, pg.44-45.
If you are outsourcing your manufacturing to China, take care and choose factories whichlook after their employees and abide by the regulations. Many of you won’t think this is important because you are not as big as Apple (yet), but that doesn’t justify your lack of concern – your customers will judge you as if you were the factory owner.
If you need help assessing your factory, China Blueprint can assist you. We provide factory inspection, compliance auditing and spot-checking services.