NEW YORK—Petitioners at the Apple Store in Grand Central on Thursday may love the iPhone, but they decry the way they say it is manufactured. Led by the petition website Change.org, a group of protesters converged to deliver 250,000 signatures asking Apple to create better working conditions for its employees in factories in China.
“We’re asking Apple to make an ethical iPhone. There is no ethical choice right now,” said Shelby Knox, 25, director of organizing at Change.org. “And that’s why we’re asking Apple to do this—because they are leaders and we really admire them in many other areas.”
Mark Shields of Washington, D.C., started the petition on Jan. 25 on Change.org—a site where anyone can petition for social change, and his initiative struck a nerve. In two weeks, it has garnered more than 200,000 signatures, with an additional 50,000 signatures collected by a separate petition on the consumer website SumOfUs.org.
In the Change.org petition, Shields said Apple is “supposed to think different.” “I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world, and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, it’s not at the cost of horrible human suffering,” Shields says on the site.
Stephen Groth, 59, signed the petition and was at the Apple store for the delivery. He owns an iPhone and an iPad, but is reconsidering an upgrade. “I don’t want to use a product that is created by people who are suffering and being damaged,” he said. “They should be treated properly, they should make a decent wage. They’re making a product that’s treasured and enjoyed by millions of Americans.”
Mike Daisey, the monologist credited for raising awareness of the conditions in the Chinese factories, heard about Thursday’s protest, and turned up to show his support.
Daisey, who said he used to live on the “bleeding-edge” of technology, started to investigate where his devices came from.
He spent time in China in May and June of 2010 to observe the working conditions at Foxconn and other electronics supply factories by talking to workers and factory suppliers.
Daisey said that employees showed him the deformities they were getting from repetitive work, told him about the toxic chemicals they use to clean the screens of an iPhone, about no bathroom breaks, and the long hours of silence—no one may speak on the production line.
Suicides were a daily occurrence during the time he spent at the gates of Foxconn.
“Employees are feeling so compressed, and so trapped in their lives, that the only way they see out is throwing themselves off the top of the buildings in a very public way,” he said. “That would mean something intense if it happened in America.”
Foxconn installed nets around the factory to prevent jumpers from dying.
“I don’t think it is ethical to go into business with a fascist country run by thugs. It is not right,” he said.
Fan Yuan, from New York-based China Labor Watch, said the labor advocacy group gets staff to work in the factories and document the conditions.
“Foxconn is already treating their workers as machines—not human beings. No bathroom break—you have to stand there all day long while you are working,” she said. The group has reported that 30 to 80 percent of the factory’s workforce leaves every year.
Some factories the group has investigated force their workers to work 7 days a week.
“To be honest, Foxconn’s labor conditions are among the best. Although it’s miserable, although it needs a lot of improvement, some factories are even worse,” Yuan said. “It’s not an excuse for Apple not to take action. If Apple can spare 10 percent of his profit … then of course the working conditions can be improved. So it just depends if Apple wants to make this kind of move.”
Apple PR person, Amy Bessette, said in an email that Apple cares about every worker in the supply chain.
“We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made. Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple,” Bessette said.
Apple conducted 229 audits at supplier facilities around the world in 2011, Bessette said. Last month the company joined the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving conditions for workers around the world.
Yuan said audits have a lot of loopholes. “What we know about auditing is that the auditing firms were hired by Apple. So they write things that Apple wanted to see. … They misrepresent the facts.”
Daisey goes one step further, “Everyone at Foxconn made it clear that it didn’t really matter what the rules are because Foxconn always knows when inspectors come.”
When asked if it was fair to single Apple out, Daisey responded, “Fair has nothing to do with it—this is just the rule of law.”
“[These] are absolute violations of local labor laws that they have clearly violated, over and over again, systematically, for years. So this idea that somehow they are being unfairly targeted—this poor, unbelievably rich company with $100 billion in the bank. … It’s really ludicrous,” Daisey said.
“I am just asking that they actually follow local laws under which they operate.”