My purple iPod has gone missing. I kept in on a table near the door so that I could use it when I walked my dogs but it’s disappeared. Generally, I’m not a careless person; I thrive on organization and feel like I’m losing control over everything when my house gets messy. I know I haven’t misplaced my iPod, loaded with all my favorites like Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Aerosmith, yet I scour the house, take apart closets, empty coat pockets. No sign of my purple gadget.
Another problem. The hard drive that contained my iTunes account and downloaded music was replaced by a much faster laptop months ago. Because I hadn’t bought music in over a year, I forgot to save my account on a flash drive. A momentary lapse of intelligence. I realize that not only is my iPod gone, but so are all the songs I loved to hear.
I refuse to accept the fact that my iPod’s gone forever, and continue looking for it. Days turn to months and here I am, still without my iPod, missing my music more than ever. Now, I need to face reality and invest in a new iPod. But I’m committed to living ethically this year, avoiding items made in sweatshops which poses an insurmountable problem, as iPods are notorious for being made under horrible conditions.
As far back as 2006, Apple has admitted its workers in factories in China work excessive hours; in a BBC News article in 2006, Apple executives admitted workers were putting in “more than 60 hours a week a third of the time.”
Stories about worker violations have continued, most notably with such poor conditions at Apple’s supplier, Foxconn, where employees have actually attempted to commit suicide. Foxconn has since installed suicide nets to stop employees from jumping to their deaths. In a March 30, 2012 article written by Agam Shah, for IDG News Service, “an investigation by the Fair Labor Association into factories operated by Apple supplier Fox conn in China found poor working conditions and worker abuse, leading Foxconn to pledge it will make improvements.”
How can anybody believe Foxconn will actually keep its word, when these conditions have been present for years without change? When Apple itself has clearly known about these conditions but has taken few if any strides to amend the situation?
Scott Nova, executive president of Worker Rights Consortium has the same concerns. “They have been promising to end forced overtime since 2006, for example, and have not done it,” he says in the IDG News Service article. “I hope this will be different, but skepticism is in order until we see proof of real progress.”
I’m not holding my breath, especially after reading a Jan. 25, 2013 article entitled, “Child labour uncovered in Apple’s supply chain” in The Guardian. This discovery comes after an internal audit by Apple, 10 months after Apple CEO Tim Cook claimed “the company is leading the way in improving working conditions” in the IDG New Service article. This recent audit found “multiple cases of child labour in its supply chain, including one Chinese company that employed 74 children under the age of 16…” Children were employed at 11 factories, there were mandatory pregnancy tests, bonded workers whose wages were confiscated to pay debts to recruitment companies, workers’ wages docked as punishment, and one factory dumped waste oil in the toilets.
To its credit, Apple did get rid of one supplier, Pingzhou Electronics, which employed 74 children under 16 years of age, and ordered suppliers to reimburse excessive recruitment fees.
“Underage labour is a subject no company wants to be associated with, so as a result I don’t believe it gets the attention it deserves, and as a result it doesn’t get fixed like it should,” says Jeff Williams, senior vice president of operations at Apple in The Guardian.
I’m wondering if Apple will ever overcome its labor problems. I’m also wondering how I’m going to replace my music with Apple iPods out of the running at this point.
My daughter, Bethany, offers one solution. “You can use my old iPod if you want,” she tells me.
It takes a couple of weeks to find it in her disorganized room, and when I get it, I see that the screen is cracked.
“Don’t worry, it still works,” she assures me.
I charge it and scan through her music; most of the artists are unknown to me. This is definitely not music that will rev me up on the treadmill, or calm me on long walks. I clench my jaw and download iTunes. In about 10 minutes I’ve spent 50 dollars and have a meagre selection to get me started. Bethany tells me that when I plug her iPod into my computer, it will automatically be cleared of her music and will reload with mine. I do this, wait until after the iPod has finished syncing, and touch the screen. Bethany’s music is still there. Mine is nowhere to be found.
“You have to sync it,” she says to me, with an exasperated eye-roll.
“Well, it doesn’t look like you did.”
I try again. And again.
“Just buy a new one,” says Bethany.
“I can’t,” I say. “They’re made in sweatshops.”
She shrugs and walks away. I go back to the computer to see if there is any sign of iPods being made under ethical conditions. I don’t find any evidence, but I do discover an intriguing piece written by Umair Haque for Bloomberg Businessweek, written July 31, 2009. “What would a Fair-Labor iPod Cost?” This is the title and the exact purpose of Haque’s article. With all the focus on Apple’s poor working conditions, Haque sets out to find the cost of producing a good iPod, “one not produced in a sweatshop, but under decent labour conditions.”
Haque explains that (using The Sloan Foundation estimates) “just $4 of an iPod’s cost is the final assembly in China. Using average Chinese hourly labour compensation costs, that’s about 2.7 hours of labour. I then used American hourly compensation costs to adjust for what the final assembly might cost in the States.”
Haque deduces that an American made iPod Classic would cost “just 23% more than a Chinese made iPod Classic: $58 more, to be precise. The same relationship holds across the iPod family (price differentials in the 20-30% range).”
Though Haque admits his calculations are not exact, they do give an idea of the difference between manufacturing costs in China and in the U.S. The numbers make me think that as consumers, we should be prepared to absorb the extra costs of having Apple products made under fair, ethical working conditions. I don’t see a $58 increase stopping people from purchasing iPods. This is just not a big enough price differential to have a major impact on Apple’s bottom line.
So why aren’t they making more products in the U.S.?
“The American manufacturing sector has been eviscerated by an insistence on near-term-cost-cutting—and today, our lack of standards and manufacturing competence has led to a dearth of innovation exactly when we need it most,” says Haque. “If goods cost what they should, we would consume what we could authentically afford, instead of overconsuming what we couldn’t.”
Haque goes on to challenge Apple to offer higher-value goods “produced to a groundbreaking new set of labour standards for the 21st Century”.
I hope Apple rises to the challenge, and soon. I am desperately missing my music and cannot think of an alternative to an iPod. But until iPods are produced under ethical conditions, with no child or forced labor, there will be no music for me, and shorter walks for my dogs.