How Apple Eternally Evades Responsibility For Terrible Abuses

Apple claims to respect human rights and ensure basic protections, but they consistently take advantage of abuses in their supply chain to extract maximum profits while people suffer greatly. History shows they will continue to do so until consumers wake up to the game they play.

Year after year, Apple has some abuse going on in their factories. People go unpaid for long stretches at a time sometimes, yielding conditions such as the recent riot that broke out in their iPhone factory last week. Workers are forced to handle toxic chemicals without proper training or equipment even, endure absurd amounts of overtime hours (up to 100 in some cases), and work in cramped, loud conditions. They’ve been cited for dumping toxic chemicals into sewers, and not having proper fire escapes — no trivial issue in places like India and China where hundreds to thousands have died as a result of such policies. A scandal like this has come out nearly every year, and surely it is happening far more than is being reported.

How long were the workers unpaid for, for example, before the iPhone factory finally exploded into a riot — and the news? Workers there say 4 months, which if true, means Apple has directly benefited by using a factory where they didn’t pay workers for 4 months, leading to decreased labor costs, not to mention what you can do with the extra cash amidst a pandemic where cash is in short supply everywhere. These abuses that go on easily escape notice generally, let alone when they finally explode into the news. Apple would’ve gotten away with not paying the workers for 4 months who make their iPhones easily once more, had they not rioted. Now that they have rioted, and it made news, Apple kicked off their time-tested strategy that has never failed to work, and I would bet it will work again.

So, it’s worth asking: how do they do it? How can they sustain scandal after scandal about abusive conditions for years, yet the public still thinks they are a quality brand who must pay their workers fairly and have solid benefits? A phone worth the price of a computer must have solid labor practices behind it, right?

First, Apple’s structure inherently allows it to pin the blame on a 3rd party every time, and they insist they check up on conditions in their factories regularly, even putting out a report every year on it. They use 3rd party suppliers in places like China and India, because it’s cheap and lacking in worker protections as a result. In this riots case, the villain Apple distances itself from is their outsourced supplier, Winstron. Apple assures us they are conducting an investigation, that they ensure “local laws” are complied with and that minimum wage is paid. It’s never a good sign when, as a luxury company, you have to boast about paying minimum wage. It’s a worse sign when you know minimum wage in these countries ranges from a whole two to three dollars. Put it together and they are bragging about paying people two bucks an hour. Local laws give non-existent protections for workers, with standards Americans might disagree with, being far more accustomed to better labor protections — even if we don’t have the best protections.

Apple also assures us that they’ve suspended manufacturing there. Apple defenders, and a good chunk of the public might think this is the most they can do, that it’s a great step and they’ll right the wrongs they find. This ignores the fact that production was already shut down, due to the, you know, riots, which caused $60 million in damage according to Apple. Winstron, by the way, who is on the ground in the factory, says the damage is only from 3.5 to 7 million. Make what you will of Apple dramatically inflating the estimate of damages. In any case, even if Apple severed ties with Winstron, it ignores they will have successfully benefited from 4 months in unpaid labor, and then to add insult to injury, actually receive accolades for having cut off Winstron. When the public outcry is immense, they might resort to such tactics and change suppliers, but then a year down the road we find out a similar abuse is going on at that factory. Rinse and repeat, and viola you have eternal evasion of responsibility while profiting off abuses.

This leads to Apple’s public relations (PR) strategy, which is to assure the public and shareholders they’re taking the responsible steps, as I just outlined, and to to lionize their workers while gutting them at the same time, They make them unable to unionize, to feel replaceable, pay them so little while simultaneously telling the public they’re high quality tech workers and implying a high wage.

How can you have a riot in a factory and still maintain the charade the same as every other year?

Apple will talk about how they care so much they have audits and inspectors, neglecting to mention these inspections are so superficial they rarely catch anything, which is of course on purpose, to once again profit on abuse, not to mention save money on inspectors while still being able to claim they have them. I can say we’re investigating the murder, but am I really investigating it if I put a clown in charge of the investigation who works 5 hours a year instead of my ace detective? After all, if they can charge customers prices that would seem to indicate reasonable, ethical practices, while being two-faced and wringing their workers dry for every dollar they can squeeze out of them, why not continue? Shareholders love the profits, people love the products, and they are happy to pay the premium, especially when assured by Apple of their privacy and ethical choices, such as becoming carbon neutral in their supply chain by 2030.

There is, perhaps, no better illustration of their PR stratagems than when Apple very publicly and pointedly refused to give the FBI a backdoor into their iPhone when they wanted to access the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. Tech companies like Google joined in, arguing they would not stand for creating a backdoor for the FBI to decode their encryption, thereby threatening user security if the backdoor was exploited by a hacker or otherwise fell into the wrong hands. They played the media perfectly, releasing press releases at just the right time for the news cycle and releasing dramatic statements about valuing privacy and security. Apple was vaunted as heroes of privacy, which as the linked article shows, they are still milking it like the cash cow it is years later. Now, virtually anyone you talk to thinks Apple has the best privacy protections of all, in large part thanks to this stand.

It turns out, however, Apple quietly reversed, giving information to the government 90% of the time it requested it, according to Apple’s own data. How did they accomplish this? They simply mothballed encryption plans for Apple Cloud, which is the backup storage for virtually all your data. They boast about not giving them your encrypted messages — and then give them access to your unencrypted backups that are stored on the cloud. All the encryption in the world can’t save you from the fact that it gets backed up to an unencrypted server. Apple will continue to boast about their encryption, meanwhile they hand over all that data to the government. There are few better examples of a company being so weasely, so blatantly two-faced. It would be like me defending your smoothie from your sibling who’s eyeing it, then boasting about my charity and how we must take a stand for smoothies everywhere! Then quietly, very quietly — slapping you in the face instead and while you set your drink down to hold your smarting cheek, I take your smoothie and hand it over to your sibling. Was there any point in promising the smoothie to begin with if my plan was to give it away all along? Only 90% of the time though!

Now, say what you will about handing over data to the government in investigations, but that is an entirely separate debate. Apple tried to make the public believe they promised not to hand over access to your data to the government, not to let it decrypt your messages and pictures. Yet, they deceived everyone and gave it to them. Even if we assumed this to be an outright legal requirement, it is one thing to comply with the law and another to act like you’re doing the opposite. It is the bold faced deceit I take issue with, the cynical play year after year of managing the public outcry of abuse, playing people for fools by promising privacy and delivering your data. It’s weasel worded language and deeds, such as their privacy statement which reads [emphasis theirs]:

Apple may share personal data with service providers who act on our behalf, our partners, or others at your direction. Further, Apple does not share personal data with third parties for their own marketing purposes.

Notice, they allow themselves use of your data for their marketing purposes, which will come in handy, I’m sure, when they release the search engine they’ve been working on. Notice, they can share your data with anyone they interact, or “partner” with, with the exception of 3rd party marketing. Read further, buried in the “other” section:

We may also disclose information about you where there is a lawful basis for doing so, if we determine that disclosure is reasonably necessary to enforce our terms and conditions or to protect our operations or users, or in the event of a reorganization, merger, or sale.

What they’re saying here is they have the authority to give your data to anyone as long as its legal and if they think it’s reasonably necessary for their own operations. They are literally writing themselves a blank check, saying they can do anything as long as its part of their operations, which is by definition everything Apple does. It would seem nothing else in their privacy statement matters, because this statement allows them to make any exception as they determine. Huh. Fancy that?

In the end, Apple will be able to profit off substandard practices while claiming they are among the most ethical brands out there, and they charge you through the nose for it. They cynically talk about “working with local authorities” to ensure good conditions, but that is to suggest they lobby to increase the minimum wage and working conditions, which needless to say, they don’t. They work with local authorities the same they do as in the US, lobbying to ensure maximum profits and ensuring the rules are written in their favor. If they really wanted to improve conditions, they could put their money where their mouth is and at absolute minimum “subsidize” their outsourced worker’s wages. They could mandate better conditions with significant penalties, and keep inspections going regularly and thoroughly. They could bring their workers in-house, or impose real, heavily enforced conditions of 3rd parties, such as a $100 million penalty if they don’t pay their workers, or a clause stipulating Apple will take care of their pay directly. Apple could simply choose not to engage in the bold face lies they tell regularly, playing down instances of abuse when it suits them and insisting they do everything to ensure good conditions. They know their outsourcing is a huge profit maker — their factory labor costs to make an iPhone is reported to be a mere $15, and I’ve seen reports as low as $5; either way surely no more than 2% of the entire cost of the phone. Would it really hurt Apple so much to even double those wages? When their profit margin on an iPhone is at least a half of the cost, they can’t bring themselves to profit a mere 49% instead of 50%? The humanity-consuming greed is truly staggering, and their self-righteous spin just adds an insane insult to injury.

Until a price is put on their behavior, Apple will continue to use their same strategy and evade responsibility every time an abuse happens. While I won’t condone a riot, it’s sad to think this is the only way these workers get noticed, and it’s really among the few options they have left. When local laws have restricted unionizing, overtime pay, and given everything else a giga-factory can demand when they’re the lifeblood of the local economy, and as Apple continues to “work closely” with local authorities to bring about such changes, there are few to no outlets other than to publicly shame Apple, or do something to grab attention and hope consumers punish them for it. It is under such oppressive conditions where people feel powerless that riots happen — a sort-of lashing out of last resort — and it is thus no surprise it happened here. Whether it’s a boycott, sharing what you know about their abuse to people, or simply publicly pressuring and shaming them, they must pay a dollar price for their abhorrent behavior, lest they continue it forever.

It is utterly fanatical that Apple can release $550 dollar headphones, as they did recently, and have it sellout still. It’s insane they can make something cheap that already exists and slap their brand on it to make it cost 300% more than a comparable headset. It speaks to the power of their brand, and by extension their PR efforts. It is more sobering though, that those headphones are very likely to be produced in conditions where even $2 an hour in wages fail to get paid. The fact they can make such products, charge such prices, maintain such a brand, and still fail to pay a remotely decent wage is really part of a bigger, enormous systemic issue, but it is also emblematic of a staggering greed that puts shareholders and profits above all else. Apple was the first trillion dollar company for a reason. That they happily will profit off the abuse has been overlooked for too long. It’s time we address their abuse, and attribute it not just to these 3rd parties, but to their purposeful outsourcing to these companies, their purposeful lack of quality inspections and regulations, their purposefully bad wages and conditions that yield a $15 dollar labor cost on a thousand dollar product, and their purposeful lies that paint a brand as ethically sourced when they know their sweatshops are anything but.

Enough, Apple. Enough.

Psychology graduate and law student. I'm a paraplegic writer interested in everything, especially psychology, science, history, law, politics & philosophy.

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