Made in China: Why Boycotting Apple Would be Wrong

by Tim Bajarin   |   January 30th, 2012

If you have been reading the articles from the New York Times about the working conditions at some of the factories that Apple and other big tech companies use to make their products, you can’t help but get upset and concerned when you learn about the abuses mentioned in the report. Apple has publicly shared how they are trying to combat these abuses and has even gone as far as joining a third-party monitoring group to get independent help to deal with these problems. Clearly, Apple has to put even more pressure on all of their suppliers to improve these conditions and rally all of the other tech companies who use these same suppliers to help with this cause.

The New York Times articles pointed out correctly that the human toll due to these abuses is a serious issue. But there is another side to this story that is not getting enough press and it is equally important to this discussion. I have traveled to China for 25 years and worked on many sourcing projects and have had to deal with Asian manufacturing issues for some time. One of the first things I learned about manufacturing in China is that the majority of factory workers come from very poor areas in central or eastern China. They covet these manufacturing jobs to get them out of their abject poverty.

In 1996 I visited an extremely rural area of China and saw first hand how they lived and the poverty they faced. I was shown a cement home that could not have been more than 10’ X 12’ and was told that two families as well as an aging grandmother lived in this place. And that their only earnings came from their field work if they could get it. I was also told that the parents in these areas pushed their teenage children to try to get the new manufacturing jobs that were just starting to emerge back then. Millions of families in China still live in this type of poverty and these manufacturing jobs are actually a life saver for them as these kids send some of the money they earn back home to help support the family.

There is an even darker side to this. The parents in these regions don’t have a lot of options and in some cases they actually sell their kids into prostitution as ways to support the family. So they see these manufacturing jobs as a better way for their kids to better themselves and still help the family. Although they only make $17.00 per day, this is at least 10 times what they could make a day in the fields if the work is even available.

And there have been reports of underage kids in these factories. But I know for a fact that the poverty is so bad in some areas that it is the parents who push these kids to lie about their age to get them into these jobs. A very sad fact is that the age of the kids sold into prostitution average 13-15. While hiring kids at this age for factory work is still wrong, you can see how when parents get desperate they could push their underage kids to the factories instead of some of the seedy alternatives available to them.

With this in mind, the call for boycotting Apple products would be just plain wrong. Apple selling less products would translate into the loss of jobs for these workers and force them back into levels of poverty and working conditions that would be even more difficult than the one’s they have in the factories.

“This American Life” quoted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a noted human rights crusader, as defending the Chinese labor system as a positive step in the evolution of the country’s economy. “I think it’s useful to be reminded about how grim the conditions are,” Kristof says in the show. “But again, I just think that if you try to think how you can fight poverty most effectively, and what has fought it within China, then I think sweatshops are a key part of that answer.”

I have actually visited some of the high-tech manufacturing factories in three regions of China and the term “sweatshop” actually does not apply to them. Because of the precision work and need to keep things very clean when making these products, these places are well-lit, air-conditioned and efficiently designed. That said, the work is tedious, and the long shifts can become exhausting. And any reported abuses must be dealt with aggressively.

But the call to boycott Apple would be irresponsible on our part. Apple’s success has created ten’s of thousands of jobs for these workers and these factory jobs are a lifeline to them and their families. Yes, these types of manufacturing jobs have gone offshore and as Steve Jobs told President Obama last year, they are not coming back.

In fact, Thomas Friedman wrote a great piece on the fact that for most American companies their customers have become world customers now and the need to manufacture and sell to them has become a global business issue.

While we might not like that Apple has created so many jobs in China, the reality is that, as the NYT’s articles pointed out, the type of manufacturing needed to make things like the iPhone and the iPad are not available in the US anymore.

The answer to dealing with these abuses is not to boycott Apple products. That would directly impact the lives of thousands of workers in a very negative way. Rather, it will be for Apple to step up their efforts and get as much help as possible from the Chinese government and other tech companies to put pressure on all of their suppliers to deal with these abuses and adhere to the rules demanded by their customers for good wages and good working conditions. They also need to find other creative ways to make the working conditions better for those who work in these factories. Let’s hope that Apple and others can make this happen soon. But boycotting Apple would be the wrong way to solve this problem.

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Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • RDaneel

    Too late. Apple has been smeared by the press and the Apple haters are off and running in the myriad technology web sites. Apple’s sales will probably suffer from this and those same haters will be wringing their hands with glee. And the “occupy” movement will be reading all about it on their iPhones, shaking their heads in agreement while squatting in their tents on public land.

    • Jim Trikakis

      Nice post. I suggest one better and that is for Apple to shutdown and go away. That would leave the self righteous human rights people to go after what is left. Maybe Google and Microsoft can team up and make the world a better place. How would the irony of that play out?

  • Englishmole

    It’s merely a sign of the hit-whoring times when every electronics firm that uses Chinese factories – i.e. all of them – is grouped under the collective name Apple.

    I guess “Boycott electronics companies” is a less compelling headline for lazy, unethical editors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tnbenson Tom Benson

    Hey.. I’ve worked on Cruise ships, a vacation style and product that many Americans also enjoy. When working on the ship, I worked 7 days a week, 13+ hours a day on the clock and on my feet (we were guaranteed one break of at least six hours continuous every 24 hours). I did this for 8 months.. non stop. Yes I made better pay than the people at Foxconn (although probably not when you take into consideration cost of living), but conditions are very similar – tiny, shared accommodation, shared eating areas (mess) etc. Who wants to boycott the cruise ship industry???

  • http://twitter.com/SaqibReports Saqib Iqbal Ahmed

    I agree that boycotting Apple products will not serve a purpose.. in fact I’ll go so far as to say that I think we should ban products from every company that cannot be bothered to make sure that its suppliers toe the line when it comes to worker conditions.
    And the argument that having under-age children working in factories is better than them being involved in “seedy alternatives,” not correct. It is just as wrong. (In fact if you consider that it is giving a criminal practice a legitimate guise you will not fail to see that in many ways it is even more wrong.)
    Sure, the world is not a great place and and not everything is as it should be. The fact that there are larger evils in the world does not excuse them that are reaping profits from lesser evils.
    Apple cannot stop small children going into the flesh trade… but if enough people protest Apple and other companies can certainly do something to see to it that working conditions in the factories of its suppliers improve.
    So I would like to say… consumers are within their rights to boycott Apple products!
    Thanks

    • benbajarin

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Saqib. China is unfortunately a very complicated political and economic area. The sad truth is every country has some ugly realities. Apple is also not turning a blind eye and doing nothing about it, the NY Times reporters left many things out of their article on the subject. Like Apple working with third parties to find issues and many times finding under-age workers and paying for their education to go to school, because their parents couldn’t.

      Boycotting is not the answer, diplomatically working with China to improve is the solution. China is an important part of many countries future and we should be doing everything we can to help improve the quality of life holistically in that country. The manufacturing industry is a part of that reality.

      As I said every country goes through growing pains and has ugly history as industries move from poverty to prosperity. Change will not happen overnight and Apple will hopefully lead in improving the process as they lead in so many other areas of this industry.

      At least we have hard data that Apple has not been standing still on this issues for some time. It will take more than Apple however but other OEM’s as well.

      • http://twitter.com/SaqibReports Saqib Iqbal Ahmed

        Thanks for the reply Ben. I agree that it is not just an Apple issue but something that other OEMs also need to look at. It is in the DNA of capitalism.
        I am sure that even the staunchest supporters of a ban on Apple products will cry fowl if Apple were to raise the iPhone’s price by even $100 because it costs that much more to ensure better conditions in the factories of its suppliers.

    • Rich

      Why don’t you ask the kids who are working in the factories whether they’d rather be there or sold into prostitution?

  • Rich

    Thanks for the post, Tim.

  • Erikhnh

    Why don’t you address the issue of why they can’t be manufactured here in the US. That the cost associated are unreasonable. We can’t even get a residential building permit to flow smooth without greasing palms, or the fact that the unions have got such a strangle hold industry that makes it impossible for us to compete.

  • Polimon

    http://blogs-images.forbes.com/timworstall/files/2012/01/appleboycott.png

    It’s no secret that life in China is terrible, but Foxconn workers are actually significantly better off than Chinese workers as a whole.

  • fring

    Thanks for the balanced post Tim. Unfortunately, balanced doesn’t wash in the rush to mindlessly crucify Apple. I think it is worth pointing out that concentrating on one company, Apple, will allow all the other manufacturers using these sweat shops to run for cover only to re-emerge and carry on as usual as the controversy will be swept under the carpet along with the bad smell. Ironic what? How about some reporting on what measures are taken by ALL companies involved in China and their open-ness. How much do they pay their workers? How much monitoring do they do of their suppliers? How are they working to implement better working conditions? I don’t know, but it seems that actually Apple is the only large company openly doing these things at the moment. I also read – can’t find the reference, that Apple actually pays more in the factories they use than other manufacturers.
    What about the harsh financial realities of world economies? Do people understand that low inflation is only possible in America, UK etc. because China is in the process of becoming a world trade power and can afford to print money – something the west cannot do without dire consequences. Compare it with the situation in Japan, which has taken 20 years to claw its way back into the black after 40 years of being the powerhouse production facility

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ROSNCEUH6GSBXAWCKQZK2XQAFY Wikileaks is Democracy

    You is wrong to say that “Apple has publicly shared how they are trying to combat….”

    • fring

      No, you is(?) wrong…
      http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/
      You’d think with a sig including the ‘Democracy’ word, that you would understand the social responsibility necessary to educate yourself. Without it, you get fascism…which is how you come across.
      I guess you don’t understand that without Apple’s report being published, there would only be conjecture, rather than the possibility of educated debate.
      Show me another company’s report with the same honest detail.

  • Screenplayhouse

    You can’t talk about legalized slavery in China without facing what it is.

  • Rudolf Charel

    Tim makes some valid points. It should be noted that China is on the way to become a developed nation. We tend to forget that at a similar point in our development the situation of workers in industry were not any better than we find in China to-day.

    It is simplistic to demand that China’s working conditions and pay are equal to ours. Given time and effort things will improve.

    As for the demand to manufacture in the US what can be made more efficiently elsewhere is naïve. California has an efficient hub for design and software, coupled with venture capital. China, on the other hand, has an efficient hub for the manufacture of electronic products. The US has done away with that and to demand a return is simply impossible.

    • benbajarin

      Your point about a developing nation is the most important one to keep in mind with this debate. Every country when they develop has gone through this issue, America included.