Articles recently reported that Tim Cook (Apple’s new CEO) earned $378m in 2011 He inherited a global technology juggernaut, renowned for its creativity and innovation; a business with $90 billion in cash reserves (The Guardian). Yet there are serious problems at one of its key suppliers, Foxconn, where a recent mass suicide threat posed an ethical dilemma facing Apple and its new leader.
The Telegraph reported [11th Jan 2012]:
Around 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions. The workers were eventually coaxed down after two days on top of their three-floor plant in Wuhan by Foxconn managers and local Chinese Communist party officials.
Not all measures should be financial
A lot of organisations highlight in their annual reports the progress they’ve made against various Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) metrics. Very commendable, but it’s important to dig deeper beyond the glossy brochures and corporate fanfare. Increasingly social-economic factors come in to play, creating a conflict of priorities opposite financial metrics.
Apple is indeed well placed to influence the working conditions at Foxconn. Despite assurances from Apple on its website that it is committed to the highest standards of social responsibility across its worldwide supply chain, the evidence presented highlights that Foxconn employees are seriously aggrieved with their working conditions. In an online article published on Thursday 26 Jan 2012 Reuters noted Apple’s apparent silence on the Foxconn situation – referencing on-going investigations carried out by the New York Times, the Reuters article is an example of growing interest and awareness of the problems at Foxconn.
Difficult working conditions
The Foxconn situation has not developed overnight. The Guardian reported recently [16th Jan 2012] the problems had been developing since at least 2010:
In 2010, a total of 18 of their colleagues in the Shenzhen campus of the Taiwan-owned company did attempt suicide; 14 died. Some employees and labour organisations blamed a combination of factors for the workers’ deaths: low wages, long working hours – sometimes up to 16 hours a day – and inhuman treatment. A number of Apple products have been cited as ‘game changers’ – products that have helped to change how we use technology to live our lives – in stark contrast, it seems that the workforce at Foxconn that help to create these Apples products survive, and sadly tolerate a rather mundane existence. Loyal Apple consumers crave for their Apple products. However, it appears there is a darker, more un-savoury side to how Apple products make it to our shelves.
Leaders can’t ignore ethics
On Tuesday [Jan 24th 2012], Apple announced its financial results for its first fiscal quarter: the figures were impressive and beat analysts’ expectations. Bloomberg (& others) immediately focused on the financial merits of Apple’s results – increasing revenue forecasts & speculating on dividend payments – a few websites noted the share price increments of various Apple suppliers, including Foxconn.
This is all very good news if you’re an Apple shareholder – however will the fortunes of Apple mean anything to the workers in Wuhan?
I borrow a comment from Dilemmas of Leadership [1st edition, p196]: “For some leaders, matters of ethics arise as unwelcome intrusion in the pursuit of economic success”.
Apple’s financial strength isn’t in doubt; however Apple’s position on ethical topics such as the welfare of workers at its suppliers is clearly attracting increased interest. Continued negative media coverage of working conditions at its suppliers may begin to influence and alter customer perceptions of the Apple brand; perhaps ultimately impacting Apple’s cherished economic success?
The need for more than ethical tokenism
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