Apr 182012
 

Like all slacktivism entities looking to leech some media limelight off of companies that actually make stuff, Greenpeace subscribes heavily to the school of “making shit up”. Because Apple has always been a secretive company that doesn’t bend over backwards to qualify outside parties’ stupid claims, Greenpeace can publish garbage and not think twice about it.

Save the #FAILS!

Lately, however, Apple hasn’t been suffering fools with the same stoicism. Yesterday, Greenpeace posted a report titled “How Clean is Your Cloud”, which aimed to assess the current state of Green Energy use among the leading technology companies. Even though Greenpeace wasn’t able to obtain any information about Apple’s data center in North Carolina, that didn’t stop them from assessing the facility “[u]sing conservative calculations” and the  “best information available to derive power demand”. This “best information” led them to report that Apple’s 20MW solar array and 5MW fuel cell installation “will cover only 10% of their total generation for the data center”, thereby earning them D’s and F’s on Greenpeace’s “scorecard”. In a very un-Apple-like move, the company issued a statement the same day that basically said Greenpeace’s methodology wasn’t worth the pdf it was laid out on. From Apple spokesperson Kristin Huguet:

Our data center in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, and we are on track to supply more than 60 percent of that power on-site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation which will each be the largest of their kind in the country. We believe this industry-leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built…”

60%, not 10%. Huguet also threw in some information about a second facility to open in Oregon next year that will be powered by 100% renewable energy. You’d think the order-of-magnitude math error and the mention of the 100% renewable energy facility would change Greenpeace’s grading curve. Of course it didn’t. From AppleInsider:

The organization issued a follow-up post on Tuesday explaining the reasoning behind its estimate and commenting on Apple’s response.

“While we welcome Apple’s attempt today to provide more specific details on its North Carolina iData Center, it does not appear to have provided the full story, and is instead seeking to provide select pieces of information to make their dirty energy footprint seem smaller,” the post read.

Maybe it’s me, but these “select pieces of information” pretty much shoot down your 10% number and call into question the entire foundation of your scorecard. This, of course, assumes you assign any value to reports expectorated from Greenpeace’s orifices, something I have personally never done. It is nice to see Apple stay in front of these asshats, though.

Apr 092012
 

Typically, you have to work hard to break into my inner circle of intense loathing. Mike Daisey managed to earn a spot of eternal smolder by pretending to see things at Apple’s manufacturing facility in Shenzhen that didn’t actually exist. He’s been pretty much blackballed by the artistic community, but it’s always nice to see some additional embarrassment heaped on his plate (Archer: What? I could have crushed that.)

So I’m tickled to see that the honorary degree that Daisey was due to receive from Cornish College (home of the fighting Game Hens, I imagine) has been retracted, much like the majority of his Apple monologue. From a Cornish spokesperson:

One essential principle of that education is the importance of professional integrity. Because of that foundational value, Cornish will not award an honorary degree to Mr. Daisey.

Never one to shut up in the face of something that could only make him look worse by commenting on it, Daisey issued this statement via his blog:

I’ve apologized for what I’ve done wrong. Cornish’s choice to grandstand on my back, when they had a very open statement from me withdrawing almost two weeks ago, is their choice. I applaud their embrace of ‘professional integrity’ — it’s unfortunate that they didn’t exercise that integrity in this case.

I’m unclear how Cornish could have defended the concept of professional integrity any more thoroughly. Maybe by exercising some of Daisey’s legendary discretion and not publicly revoking their invitation. Apparently they…

Came...from...behind...!!

God I love me some Roast Porkins.

Apr 082012
 

In a couple of my prior posts, I had asked why Apple’s competition didn’t get any milage from all the heat the company was taking over Foxconn. This is an industry that thinks having Flash on their tablet constitutes a legitimate competitive advantage and these guys didn’t trip over each other to pile on actual bad press? Isn’t that curious?

Actually, no. All of Apple’s competitors either use Foxconn or any number of other Asian manufacturers with less savory reputations than Foxconn. The first one to cast a stone stood a chance of being called out for their supply chain’s labor practices. This, of course, assumes that anyone cares about these practices when the company suspected of them isn’t named Apple or – after lying fraud Mike Daisey’s antics – the public even gives a shit about the issue at all.

So what would happen if a Times reporter went ahead and asked these companies about the labor practices of their supply chains? You’d find out as much as I did when I went digging through Samsung’s PR sunshine enema. Actually, when the Times asked Samsung, they didn’t get an answer at all. Barnes & Noble issued a “no comment”, Amazon punted to a third-party auditor – one that doesn’t report its findings publicly. Several cited their membership in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) as though it meant something. And what about HP – that paragon of good corporate behavior that the Times used as its shining counter-example to Apple in its notorious January 25 hitpiece?

A report on Hewlett-Packard’s Web site, which was so hidden that it took me several hours to find, details working conditions from 2010 but has not been updated since. In the report, the company notes that more than 51 percent of the factories it works with were in violation of working hour labor laws.

You mean there’s no reports documenting statements like the one Zoe McMahon made to the Times for the piece on the 25th that HP’s suppliers “…let us know when they are struggling to meet our expectations [on pricing], and that influences our decisions [about how much we’re willing to pay]?”

Of course there isn’t. When it comes to nebulous statements that can’t be fact-checked, Apple’s competitors come out of the woodwork to help yellow journalists bash the company, then remain silent while Apple takes all the shit for practices they’re at least as guilty of. And when they’re asked pointedly about their practices? They scatter like cockroaches.

Mar 302012
 

The FLA has performed a preliminary audit of 3 Foxconn plants and by looking at my RSS tech feed, it doesn’t look good. Ars Technica reports “Apple supplier in violation of labor and safety rules, outside audit says”, trusted news source Gizmodo says “Overworked and In Danger: The Full Foxconn Labor Report” and even The Unofficial Apple Website (TUAW) tells us “Fair Labor Association finds multiple violations at Foxconn facilities”.

Holy shit: Mike Daisey was right!

Because I’ve been burned in the past by the “truthiness” of tech blog headlines in relation to actual facts, I actually took the time to download and read the FLA report. Turns out they did find violations of their “10 Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing”, but maybe not as egregious as some of headlines would have you believe.

Labor

The most-often cited violation, as you probably guessed, involved the amount of overtime worked. You’d think that’d be cut and dried, but it’s not. You see, there are 2 standards relevant to the amount of overtime worked in China. The FLA upholds a standard of a maximum 60 hour work week (40 hours + 20 hours overtime). Curiously, the Chinese law states that maximum consist of 40 hours + 36 hours overtime per month, or 9 hours a week. Why would the FLA standard be higher? Maybe China has more interest in the number of people working than the number of hours people work, or maybe their government is just a big ol’ teddy bear after all.

Anyway, the 3 Foxconn plants visited by the FLA had at times violated both the FLA standard and the more stringent Chinese standard, most flagrantly during the months of November – January. The average work week was just over the FLA maximum of 60 hours (61.05 hours). There was also violations of the “7 consecutive days working without a 24 hour rest” standard. 11.57 days was average of those surveyed when asked what the longest number of days they worked consecutively. Sounds like Foxconn didn’t get the memo on that one.

Interestingly, the FLA also asked workers if they thought they were working too much. Half those surveyed (48.4%) said their hours were reasonable compared to 17.8% who said they weren’t. The other 34%? They said they’d like to work more to make more money. Guess those people aren’t going to like the plan Foxconn has for complying with the FLA’s findings. They’ve pledged to pare back overtime hours (and therefore hire more people) to comply with the more stringent Chinese law by July 2013.

There were also issues with the handling of internships and the benefits covering interns. Apple and Foxconn have agreed to a number of steps that will better integrate interns into the benefit system deployed for the larger worker population.

Sadly, the FLA did not find any incidents of underaged labor, so Mike Daisey: still a liar.

Safety

Despite the doomsday scenario painted in some headlines, issues with worker safety were almost exclusively those of worker perception as opposed to actual observed conditions that were a danger to worker safety. To explain, in addition to auditing conditions, the FLA surveyed thousands of employees. The questions about safety involved how “safe” the workers themselves felt. I though one particular question, “Have you ever experienced or witnessed an accident in this factory?” was particularly leading, sort of like “Were you ever or do you know anyone who was the victim of a violent crime?”. Of course a majority of the respondants are going answer in the affirmative. In this case of Foxconn, 43.3% responded “yes”. I would be more interested in “Have you ever been the victim of an accident while working?” as a indicator of actual safety conditions, but I guess that’s why I’m not in China doing audits for the FLA.

As far as actual violations, the report mentions miscellaneous infractions by way of summary such as “blocked exits, lack of or faulty personal protective equipment, and missing permits”. It was also noted that these many of these conditions “have already been remedied.”

As you can imagine, the FLA also paid particular attention to the issue of aluminum dust:

Our assessors did identify some machines at which sensors, hoods or barriers needed to be connected to automatic cut-out mechanisms to prevent workers from reaching into the machines, and they also flagged the use of compressed air in some sections where it could pose a risk.

Again, it was noted that “A number of these issues were rectified immediately.”

Wages & Benefits

Another focus of the report, pay and the administration of benefits was covered extensively through direct observation and survey. Although the FLA did find that the credit of overtime needed some re-tooling (Foxconn’s policy was to pay in 30 minute increments (i.e. if you worked 28 minutes, you didn’t get OT) and worker meetings were not thought to qualify for OT when they should), compensation was deemed adequate. Of course workers surveyed were split in their opinions about how well they felt they were compensated (only 35.7% felt that their wages were “sufficient to cover basic needs”), something I think that many of us can identify with personally. The FLA recommended a “cost of living” analysis for each of factories to see how far apart perception and reality are.

I’m not going to say much about how the myriad benefits are applied, because their application is convoluted by the transferability of rights of migrant workers have (mostly don’t have) in their home provinces. It’s an situation that both Foxconn and Apple have committed to studying, if not improving.

I’d encourage people to download the report and draw their own conclusions. I personally didn’t find any “holy shit!” moments, but my bias is obvious in the name of my blog. Two things I’d like to mention in closing. First, this was not an official FLA audit. Apple requested that the FLA come in immediately to get a lay of the land, so these conditions were documented cold. I like that Apple did this, because it will give them a better starting point, but I do feel that many of the issues documented would have been resolved if the FLA’s insertion wasn’t so sudden. I expect conditions to improve markedly as the FLA becomes a fixture at these facilities. Second, I’d like to invite all of Apple’s peers to enlist the involvement of the FLA. Or they could continue to hide behind what Apple does and remain blissfully mute about the conditions on their own production lines.

You can probably tell which of these two scenarios I think will play out.

Mar 162012
 

Well, well, well. It seems as though the gods of the Internet are making up for my lack of new iPad disposable income with the news that one of my favorite one man shows has been shown to be a little less than truthful. NPR’s This American Life went so far as to retract a January broadcast featuring Daisey’s Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Brought to you on the wings of angels by the good people at MacRumors:

In a remarkable reversal, This American Life has now announced that it is retracting its January broadcast of Daisey’s content, citing a number of fabrications discovered in a follow-up investigation on his claims.

Paging shocked eTrade baby! Please report to graphics stat!

Mike Daisy's Apple claims found to contain fabrications? This is my shocked-but-not-really face.

I’m sure Daisey has a perfectly legitimate explanation for the fact that the interpreter that accompanied him on his trips to Foxconn “disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show”:

For his part, Daisey acknowledges that some of the information he presented was not entirely truthful, arguing that his monologue was created for theater. Consequently, he agrees that it should not have been presented as journalism, although he stands behind the intent of his work.

And for my part, and on behalf of the Apple community you’ve been gaming to make money off of Steve Jobs’s memory and the company he built, I stand behind my claims that you’re a liar and a fraud and respectfully request that you crawl back under the rock housing the rest of Apple’s baseless detractors.

God, this is almost as good as a new iPad.

Feb 222012
 

I was a little concerned about the piece that ran on Nightline Tuesday night documenting conditions inside Apple’s Foxconn facility, especially when the ABC got through all of its disclosure about the intersection between Apple and Disney’s interests. I thought “they have to slam Apple just to appear impartial”.

In the end, I think it was fair assessment, one that included not only conditions within the plant, but those of the villages outside the plant where a number of its employees come from. Context like that will probably only make student groups and assorted slacktivists howl about smoke and mirrors. Where are the 12 year old workers?! Where are the 15-bed cement tomb dorms?!  I guess they can rest assured that when it comes to Apple, someone will always be looking to cash in off of their westerner guilt or get them to sign another online petition. Keep doing your parts, guys. And by that I mean the parts that do nothing besides make you feel better that your parents have money.

Via Nightline*

*Updated with link to full report.

Feb 082012
 

The reason I object to causes that aim to improve working conditions in Chinese tech mills by protesting and/or boycotting Apple isn’t because I don’t think people deserve a humane employment environment. It’s because the rationale that makes up this pressure is half-assed, if it exists at all. Because Apple makes the biggest margins on its smartphones and tablets, Apple should empty its pockets into some kind of the rainbow puppy fund which magically improves the lives of workers. How that transaction gets created, funded and administered is usually met with some kind of dismissive hand motion on the part of the people who already signed up at SumOfUs.org, and have therefore fully registered their indignation.

I hate to break it to all the armchair philanthropists out there, but the reason Apple makes upward of a 45% margin on their products is because what people are willing to pay – and in some cases how much wireless carriers subsidize – is far in excess of what these products cost now. The reason the iPhone can leverage large subsidies out of carriers started because Apple spent an enormous amount of effort and several years to build a non-shit mobile phone. Once it was designed, they shopped their product around confidently, and got Heismanned by Verizon before falling into the arms of AT&T, who signed them into an exclusive agreement. This exclusivity came at the expense of Apple’s ability to market its device to other carriers, something that led directly to the army of shitpile Android knock-offs busting down Verizon’s and other carriers’ doors. If you recall, the first iPhone wasn’t even subsidized by AT&T. Enough people paid full price for it that Apple was able to parley its success into a subsidy. Apple commands its margins because it built a superior, minimalist piece of consumer electronics kit vacuum-packed into Apple incredible App Store ecosystem, sold in the most pristine retail environments and supported in a way that earns the company best-in-class customer satisfaction awards every year. In other words, they didn’t trip and fall into their current success – they earned it.

Part of the reason – a minor part, mind you – that Apple is able to offer its unicorn tears at a reasonable price is because Apple, like every consumer electronics maker on the planet, assembles their products in other countries, China chief among them. The part of the January 21 New York Times article that wasn’t unsubstantiated former Apple employee heresy highlights why: it’s less about the economics and more about the logistics. Apple makes wildly successful products that requires wildly massive outlays of human capital on demand. I have no doubt that some variation of the overtime abuse claimed in these pieces happens when Apple shifts into balls-out production mode. The speed at which the products are assembled is actually the biggest bottleneck Apple currently faces, something that’s been mentioned by Tim Cook on more than one occasion. That’s why Apple’s building factories in other countries – to address the throughput issue in a way that’s less taxing on existing resources. But that’s in the future, and it may not be a complete solution. So how does Apple, who has been causing some stress to the channel used by others to assemble its wares, improve the conditions of workers fairly? Of course I have some ideas, the listing of which represents more effort than I’ve seen applied to the issue to date.

  • Contact all the manufacturers of devices that use foreign labor to assemble their wares. Here’s a partial list, from our friends at Wikipedia:

Acer Inc.
Amazon
ASRock
Asus
Barnes & Noble
Cisco
Dell
EVGA Corporation
Hewlett-Packard
Intel
IBM
Lenovo
Microsoft
MSI
Motorola
Netgear
Nintendo
Nokia
Panasonic
Samsung
Sharp
Sony
Sony Ericsson
Vizio

  • Announce that you’re spearheading an initiative to improve working conditions in factories that their products are assembled and invite them to contribute. The fairest contribution methodology I can come up with is that it be a “tax” derived as percentage of the value of the components making up the device multiplied by the number of devices. Apple doesn’t pay more per device because it makes more money, but it does pay more into the kitty because of its insane volume. Proceeds from Galaxy Tab assembly can be used for a “coffee of the month” subscription. Don’t want to be a part of the Apple solution to the industry’s problem? No sweat. Apple will make sure a list of contributors and non-contributors is publicly available so every crackpot .org can scream about boycotting your ass.
  • Have Mike Daisey contribute $5/ticket from net proceeds of “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” to the same fund. As long as we’re punishing Apple for making money off of its name, we may as well be thorough. I’m sure he’d agree. I’m kidding. Sort of.
  • Have one of these watchdog groups administer the fund with input from representatives of the workforce. If it were me, I’d throw down a raise across the board and some extra incentive for overtime, but I don’t know what floats the average factory laborer’s boat. The point is that the spending decisions gets made based on worker input.
  • Have the watchdog group also monitor the factories so they don’t pull any bullshit like yanking down worker’s salaries to account for the extra money they get from the Collective. They would also keep an eye on all the usual stuff like consecutive hours worked, total hours worked and appropriately-aged laborers. I assume that’s the kind of stuff you pay these people for.

If the people caterwauling about Apple are interested in bettering the conditions of the people that assemble their consumer electronics, something like this represents a rational starting point. Singling out Apple, while probably more cathartic than indicting all manufacturers, is disingenuous and lazy. Real world problems spawned by globalization require solutions that go beyond shaking your fist and blindly boycotting. Real solutions don’t penalize some companies more than others because some of them worked harder to enjoy their current level of success. They distribute the responsibility to all the parties involved. I hope Apple’s response to its critics resembles a real, sustainable solution.

Feb 082012
 

Change.org and SumOfUs.org are combining their angst to deliver petitions to Apple Stores across the world. According to the site, 250,000 people have registered their concerns about the conditions under which their iPhones are being made. Because nothing communicates extreme discontent like scrawling your name on a piece of paper. From SumOfUs.org’s press release:

“Apple’s attention to detail is famous, and the only way they could fail to be aware of dozens of worker deaths, of child labor, of exposure to neurotoxins is through willful ignorance.”

Dozens eh? I recall seeing that four people died making iPads in the Times article, but I guess if you want to pin every Foxconn suicide on Apple, by all means do so. You’re not going to make a difference in the world without a little hyperbole. What exactly should Apple do?

…sign the petition to Apple telling them to make the iPhone 5 ethically.

Ethically. Pay workers more? I kinda think Apple would be all for it. How about the rest of the dozens of manufacturers that use facilities like Foxconn? Should they kick in too?

Apple is the richest company in the world, posting a profit margin for the last quarter of 42.4% yesterday.

So Apple should pay…wait – how does that translate into what Apple should do on behalf of the entire consumer electronics industry?

They’re sitting on $100 billion in the bank.

Upon reflection, this cause is beyond petty details like “fairness in implementation” or “shared responsibility”. That’s why Philip McCracken has just joined the rest of his fellow citizens in answering SumOfUs’s call to arms against teh ebil Apple.

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