Bad Labor Conditions Aren't Just A Problem For Apple—We All Have A Stake

A decade ago, Apple made a splash with its “Think Different” advertising campaign. Today, with Apple in the headlines concerning labor conditions in its supply chain, it’s time for all of us to think different about how to improve the lives of the millions of workers making the products that drive our global economy. While it’s tempting to point to particular companies as the core of the problem, the reality—and the solutions—are much broader and much more complex.

While many companies have achieved better working conditions, big international brands must do more. Getting this right requires a combination of government action and business innovation, more ownership by workers of conditions in their factories, and more accountability by consumers for product decisions that help contribute to these working conditions. Factory monitoring can be a useful step, and provides an immediate response to outraged consumers, but alone, it does too little to improve the lives of workers. Instead, we need a new system that relies more on incentives for good labor practices and preventive measures to avoid abuses.

Much of this issue arises because governments have refused to enforce labor laws. With the notable exception of China’s prohibition on free trade unions, most countries’ existing laws are generally sufficient to safeguard workers. The problem is that laws are often little more than words on a page. It’s not only production that has been outsourced; so, too, has the enforcement of labor laws, with governments standing back waiting for business to take action. From a public policy perspective, that makes little sense. Governments, including those in the United States and Europe, should play their enforcement role more consistently, and business should advocate for government to do just that. It may be counterintuitive for business to call for better enforcement of laws, but such a system rewards the best companies, and it is a more rational, efficient, and fair way of ensuring the good working conditions everyone deserves.

Even if governments step up, business cannot step back. But the path forward should rely less on the monitors who police factories, and instead focus on how existing business models can lead to problems. Consider a common scenario in our interconnected economy: Raw materials from one factory arrive late at the factory that does final assembly. At that stage, suppliers must choose whether to have workers go around the clock, or risk losing their customer. The result: long hours of overtime, which is perhaps the most common violation of local law and company code of conduct. New production models that rely less on just-in-time delivery could provide considerable relief to the pressures that lead directly to worker mistreatment. No amount of factory monitoring will address the root cause of this challenge.

Here is where consumers come into the picture. Recession or not, we want it all, and we want it now; our hunger for “fast fashion” or the latest tech toy is part of the problem. And while surveys often say consumers prefer products made by well-treated workers, these instincts only translate into action if companies make it easy for people to align their purchases and their values.

Which brings us to workers. For far too long, factory workers have been passive participants in efforts designed to benefit them. Millions of workers, often women in the formal economy for the first time, who make the products we use every day, have been considered a fungible part of the production process. And while it is certainly useful to ensure that they can express their views freely to factory monitors, this retains a focus on reducing violations, rather than making real improvements in peoples’ lives.

We need a parallel effort to help workers obtain life skills and access to basic services like health care, since the social infrastructure for this is lacking in many countries where products are made. This vision has been advanced by efforts like BSR’s HERproject, which enables thousands of women working in export factories to access health information and care. Levi Strauss & Co., the first company to implement a code of conduct for its suppliers, has recently changed its approach to focus on economic development, using the Millennium Development Goals, which cover topics like gender equality and universal education, as the baseline for its suppliers’ factories.

Let’s all learn the right lessons from the recent stories about Apple. Apple, in this story, is all of us—the consumers who need to act on their principles, the governments that must enforce their own rules, and the businesses that need to reinvent the production process to improve the lives of their workers. With this formula, we can have a supply chain that matches economic efficiency and fair treatment of workers. Without it, we can count on a future with more consumer outrage—and worker mistreatment. It’s time to think different.

Aron Cramer is President and CEO of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability.

[Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]

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