I have written before and at more length about the Apple-Foxconn- Fair Labor issue. Once again these companies, locked in a commercial embrace, are in the spotlight, as another organization reports on working conditions and claims to have interviewed scores of Foxconn employees. http://nigelcameron.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/values-and-the-value-chain-apple-foxconn-and-the-new-csr/
1. Apple’s decision to sign on to Fair Labor was bold but savvy. Growing global transparency driven by the very technologies that have powered the firm offers huge issues of reputational risk as the image of the smartest, high-end western tech company and a vast, sprawling, Chinese manufacturer move into a single frame. But it’s just the start of a process of engagement and openness.
2. Labor standards vary much around the globe, which is (of course) one reason that manufacturing in country A is cheaper than in country B. That is not the only reason, but it is one. At the same time, while human rights are not relative, cultural experience is: A good employer in A may have requirements that would make the firm look a thoroughly bad employer in B. That is separate from specific cultural issues (confessions, and the like) which may or may not be seen as appropriate. Point is, the comparison – like every cross-cultural comparison – needs to be analogical. To use the powerful verb that heads up the article we are discussing, “gruelling” means different things in different places. It just does.
3. That having been said, the effort to integrate “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) into the value chain of the company, illustrated here, is not something to be done in half measure. I have no means of knowing who and how these matters are arranged at Apple. But it is my hope that Tim Cook has people as smart and as powerful in his executive suite handling this set of issues as are handling design and engineering and marketing. If he does not, the effort at alignment between Apple’s spiffy image and the manufacturing behind it will come adrift. The scrutineers have just started their work. The need to integrate “CSR” values with value will prove only more important with the passage of time. Time passes increasingly fast. Secrets hard to keep now will be twice as hard in a year’s time. And the smarts that have aligned design and engineering in the Apple products need to be addressed to an equally strong alignment with the people and their toil who put together these remarkable machines.
I stated earlier that the Apple move to engage Fair Labor could lead to a revolution in Chinese labor standards. I am sticking with my story. By bridging outsourced Asian manufacturing and the elite market for their products Apple has taken a deliberate risk. In a long-term perspective it is an obviously sensible choice. But it will only help if it is relentlessly followed through. Apple does not need more discordant reports like this one. Someone who has Tim Cook’s ear needs to make sure the Foxconn connection is driven with the same energy and passion and resources as every other department of the company. Apple can survive Siri issues. It might not if the “sweatshop” charges started to stick.