Made in China: Why Boycotting Apple Would be Wrong

on January 30, 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.