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.

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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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