On Friday, employees at one of the two Chinese plants that produces iPhones walked off the factory floor - the latest in a string of protests surrounding Apple's manufacturing operations. For Apple, stakes go beyond the smooth operation of its pipeline to the very heart of its business. I'm a lifelong Apple user, but I'm boycotting the company until it improves the way it treats the people who build its products. Here's why you should, too.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese contract manufacturer that produces iPhones and iPads, has been beset by a horrifying series of scandals. Intolerable labor conditions have spurred suicides, rioting, and, last Friday, an alleged strike at Foxconn's Zhengzhou, China.
At what point will Apple say enough is enough? When will it decide that the cost saved by manufacturing in China isn't worth the PR blowback, to say nothing of the physical and emotional harm its partnership with Foxconn supports?
Reports of the strike are conflicting. New York-based China Labor Watch reported that Friday's action included as many as 5,000 people. Foxconn spokesperson Liu Kun acknowledged a strike of 300 to 400, calling it a two-hour dispute between workers and quality inspection officers, according to the China Daily. Meanwhile Shanghai Daily reported that Foxconn denied the strike, yet said that China's state-run Xinhua News Agency confirmed the work stoppage, although a search of Xinhuanet fails to turn up a mention.
My own attempts to confirm the strike failed. In an Oct. 6 statement, the Taiwanese company denied that any work stoppage occurred and insisted that employees worked voluntarily:
"Any reports that there has been an employee strike are inaccurate, there has been no workplace stoppage in that facility or any other Foxconn facility during the national holidays in China and production has continued on schedule," the statement read. "Employees who have worked during the China national holidays at all our operations in China have done so voluntarily and this is supported by written documentation and any reports to the contrary are inaccurate."
That doesn't mean it didn't happen. It just means the nuances of the word "strike" have become part of a he-said, she-said game.
At the end of the statement, Foxconn insists that its business practices are safe and positive. "We do this because it is our policy, but we also do this because we want to continue to be the employer-of-choice in our industry."
The words "employer of choice" suggest that Foxconn may already fear Apple pulling out of China. The house that Steve Jobs built is at a crossroads (in a strange twist, Friday's strike happened on the anniversary of Jobs' death). Its top-dog position depends at least partly on consumer perception there's no blood on the iDiamonds it sells. If Apple wants to remain the people's choice for personal tech, it must rethink its manufacturing strategy. It must take its own advice and "think different."
And if it doesn't? Count on continued strikes and protests. Not necessarily at factories - those are already happening - but at Apple Stores. I want to own Apple's products, but I don't want to compromise my core values in the process. If you knew that shiny new iPhone you had covet was made in a sweatshop by a young worker who was beaten and forced to toil long hours on a holiday - would you still want it?
Apple has not replied to my repeated calls for comment, and the company has offered no statements following this latest chapter in the Foxconn saga. But it's only a matter of time before the company will have to take a stand, because this problem is not going away, and the louder these workers get, the more the public will demand accountability. For my part, that starts today.