On Friday, September 20, the new iPhone models 5S and 5C were presented for sale at Apple stores around the world. An onslaught of media coverage of customers waiting on line for and purchasing the new devices ensued. Yet, we have still seen very little coverage of the report published by China Labor Watch on July 29 that documented rampant abuse of laborers and violation of Chinese labor law at Pegatron Shanghai, where these new iPhones are produced. The photo pairings that follow–each composed of a photo from media coverage of Friday’s iPhone launch and a photo from the China Labor Watch report–are meant to close the loop between production and consumption. The information included with each pairing is taken from the photo captions provided by the Los Angeles Times, and from the China Labor Watch report titled “Apple’s unkept promises: cheap iPhones come at high cost to Chinese workers.” They are presented without editorial comment for your thoughtful consideration.
Blame Mike Daisey. He drew me into this mess of a research project with his appearance on This American Life in January 2012. Like many, I was enraptured and sickened by his description of the work conditions and lives of young Chinese laborers at the Foxconn facility in Shenzhen, China that assembles iPhones, and now iPads. What I learned in that podcast made me angry, as both an owner of Apple products and as a critical sociologist who focuses on globalization and labor. Daisey’s account of conditions at Foxconn and the experiences of Chinese workers sparked my initial cursory investigation into Apple’s supply chain and their stance on corporate social responsibility, by way of the their annual Supplier Responsibility Reports. Then, a couple of months later, This American Life aired a retraction episode that revealed that Daisey had fictionalized his account. While host Ira Glass noted that nothing Daisey said was actually untrue, he had not seen all that he said he had, but rather had folded into his monologue the documented accounts of others. Glass, and many Apple consumers, seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and the affair was rather quickly swept under the rug by the consuming public and the press.
These events made me deeply curious about the brand power of Apple. I wondered, how does a company that receives such bad press persist in its popularity? How could it be that, rather than taking a hit in the aftermath of a vicious exposé of labor conditions at their suppliers, Apple revenues surged and broke records throughout 2012? So, I embarked on a really big research project–bigger, more complex, and vastly more difficult than any project I have ever delved into before. I seek to identify all of Apple’s suppliers, map their supply chain, illuminate their financial structure, and understand their brand power here in the US and around the world. While I have a couple of lengthier and more in-depth pieces on this research in the works that will be published in a few months, I wanted to share with you some highlights from the research thus far. Here we go.