Remembering Steve Jobs’ Record on Workers’ Rights

Mike Elk

A worker at a Foxconn facility in China—where workers produce Apple products—holds onto steel wire mesh installed after a spate of worker suicides in 2010.

Yes­ter­day, Twit­ter was abuzz with reac­tions to Steve Jobs’ res­ig­na­tion as CEO of Apple, among reports that his health is in bad con­di­tion. Pro­gres­sives and con­ser­v­a­tives alike praised Jobs as some­one who had rev­o­lu­tion­ized indus­try with Apple’s inno­v­a­tive com­put­er designs. Thanks Steve for push­ing for designs that have humans at the cen­ter,” blog­ger Ario Jafarzadeh tweet­ed.

While Jobs’ designs for com­put­ers may have put humans at their cen­ter, work­ing con­di­tions for Apple’s work­ers put prof­its at their cen­ter. Jobs did indeed rev­o­lu­tion­ize the com­put­er indus­try, but in a way that was neg­a­tive for Amer­i­can work­ers, who for decades have seen man­u­fac­tur­ing job prospects dwin­dle as jobs go to work­ers over­seas, who in turn often labor in bru­tal sweat­shop conditions.

Many peo­ple may find it dis­taste­ful to cri­tique the life’s work of a man in poor health, but I think it’s nec­es­sary to cri­tique Job’s labor prac­tices: I’m cer­tain most pro­files of Jobs’ tenure will com­plete­ly avoid men­tion­ing sys­tem­at­ic labor rights vio­la­tions that occur at Apple.

The com­put­er indus­try was seen by many as the poten­tial sav­iour of Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing. Accord­ing to for­mer Intel CEO Andy Grove, in the 1970s there were about 150,000 Amer­i­cans work­ing in the com­put­er indus­try. Between the 1970s and now, the com­put­er indus­try eco­nom­ic foot­print grew from being a $20 bil­lion a year indus­try to $200 bil­lion a year. At the peak of U.S. employ­ment in the com­put­er indus­try, there were two mil­lion peo­ple employed in mak­ing com­put­ers in the Unit­ed States.

Now, with most com­put­er man­u­fac­tur­ing being done over­seas, there are only 150,000 Amer­i­cans employed in the com­put­er indus­try, accord­ing to Grove, who wants to reverse the trend.

As indus­tri­al­ists like Steve Jobs have shipped the bulk of their man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas to take advan­tage of cheap exploitable labor, the Unit­ed States’ trade deficit in high-tech prod­ucts has grown. (It was $31.2 bil­lion last year, but is already $43.6 bil­lion this year, accord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus Bureau fig­ures.)

The labor prac­tices in most of those coun­tries man­u­fac­tur­ing Apple prod­ucts would shock most lib­er­al apprais­ers of Jobs’ lega­cy. Apple has con­tin­ued to use a Chi­nese con­trac­tor, Fox­conn, to pro­duce its iPads and iPhones, despite alle­ga­tions of the company’s hor­rif­ic work­ers’ rights abus­es. Fox­conn rou­tine­ly forces it work­ers to work two to three times the legal Chi­nese lim­it and to work in bru­tal and often unsafe con­di­tions that have led to many acci­dents, as Michelle Chen report­ed for Work­ing In These Times. These work­ing con­di­tions led to 10 Fox­conn work­er sui­cides at the company’s Shen­zhen facil­i­ty in 2010 alone. 

The sui­cide prob­lem at Foxconn’s Chi­nese fac­to­ries became so bad that the com­pa­ny put up steel wire to pre­vent work­ers from jump­ing and killing them­selves. In June 2010, the same month that Jobs unveiled a new ver­sion of the wild­ly suc­cess­ful iPhone, the UK’s Dai­ly Mail news­pa­per pub­lished a dis­turb­ing under­cov­er report on con­di­tions with­in Foxconn’s mas­sive fac­to­ry com­plex in Shen­zhen. It’s worth quot­ing at length:

[W]e encoun­tered a strange, dis­turb­ing world where new recruits are drilled along mil­i­tary lines, ordered to stand for the com­pa­ny song and kept in bar­racks like bat­tery hens — all for lit­tle more than £20 a week.

In what’s been dubbed the i‑Nightmare fac­to­ry’, the scan­dal focus­es on two sprawl­ing com­plex­es near Shen­zhen, two decades ago a small fish­ing port and now a city of 17 mil­lion peo­ple.

This is the epi­cen­tre of oper­a­tions for Fox­conn, China’s biggest exporter, which makes prod­ucts under licence for Apple using a 420,000-strong work­force in Shen­zhen. They have 800,000 work­ers coun­try-wide.

And as Jobs was speak­ing in San Fran­cis­co [while announc­ing the iPhone], new mea­sures were being secret­ly intro­duced at Fox­conn to pre­vent the sui­cide scan­dal from wors­en­ing and dam­ag­ing Apple sales glob­al­ly.

Aston­ish­ing­ly, this involves forc­ing all Fox­conn employ­ees to sign a new legal­ly bind­ing doc­u­ment promis­ing that they won’t kill themselves.

Instead of can­celling its con­tract with Fox­conn and mov­ing pro­duc­tion back to the Unit­ed States, Apple hired a team of sui­cide pre­ven­tion spe­cial­ists to make rec­om­men­da­tions includ­ing bet­ter train­ing for hot­line staff and care cen­ter coun­selors and bet­ter mon­i­tor­ing to ensure effectiveness.”

Apple rou­tine­ly uses fac­to­ries over­seas that have track records of vio­lat­ing work­ers’ rights, but rarely can­cels con­tracts with those fac­to­ries and moves pro­duc­tion back home. Accord­ing to Apple’s own Sup­pli­er Respon­si­bil­i­ty” inter­nal review released in Feb­ru­ary, less than one third of all Apple fac­to­ries obeyed Apple rules about not forc­ing fac­to­ry work­ers to work more than 60 hours a week. Accord­ing to its own inter­nal review, only 57 per­cent of its fac­to­ries com­plied with the Apple’s poli­cies on occu­pa­tion­al injury pre­ven­tion. The review found that 95 fac­to­ries did not do reg­u­lar safe­ty inspec­tions and 54 failed to give their work­ers ade­quate safe­ty equipment.

Apple could have moved work back home under its own direct super­vi­sion to guar­an­tee accept­able work­ing con­di­tions — or at least acknowl­edge that an over­seas sup­ply chain net­work of con­trac­tors inher­ent­ly depends on cheap exploitable labor and lacks mean­ing­ful over­sight. Instead, Apple’s response to the sys­tem­at­ic vio­la­tions of work­ers’ rights through­out its sup­ply chain was to can­cel con­tracts with only two fac­to­ries.

On the home front, the company’s labor prac­tices are also far from per­fect, as a recent orga­niz­ing dri­ve by Apple’s retail work­ers has brought to light. At its retail stores, the com­pa­ny prefers to hire part-time work­ers and keeps many employ­ees work­ing part-time who wish to be full-time employ­ees. As a result, many work­ers can­not afford to buy Apple’s health insur­ance, as Josh Eidel­son report­ed last month for Work­ing In These Times.

In addi­tion, Apple has faced alle­ga­tions of age dis­crim­i­na­tion from old­er employ­ees who claimed they have been denied pro­mo­tions or job oppor­tu­ni­ties at Apple stores as a result of their age. (Any­body who has ever gone to an Apple Store and noticed the age of employ­ees can ver­i­fy that most work­ers are under 30.)

You’d expect that at least Apple’s vaunt­ed soft­ware engi­neers would be treat­ed well. But Jobs has faced alle­ga­tions that Apple broke anti-trust law by work­ing with oth­er com­put­er com­pa­nies to keep the salaries of soft­ware engi­neers arti­fi­cial­ly low. A 2009 Depart­ment of Jus­tice inves­ti­ga­tion showed that Apple was one of many com­pa­nies that agreed not to cold call” oth­er com­pa­nies’ employ­ees and these agree­ments dis­rupt­ed the nor­mal price-set­ting mech­a­nisms” of the labor market.

While Steve Jobs has indeed rev­o­lu­tion­ized the com­put­er indus­try, his company’s labor rela­tions record here and abroad is full of typ­i­cal multi­na­tion­al cor­po­rate prac­tices that have one thing at their core: exploita­tion of work­ers in pur­suit of profits. 

Jobs may be deal­ing with seri­ous health issues, but it is an absolute mal­prac­tice of jour­nal­ism for busi­ness jour­nal­ists to fail to men­tion abus­es of work­ers’ rights dur­ing his long reign as Apple’s CEO.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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