What, where, when?
It was the New York Times that broke the scandal of disgraceful working conditions for Apple’s Asian factory workers. The January 2012 article, entitled In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad, denounced Apple for choosing company profit over workers’ human rights, accusing the company of being complicit in poor safety, accidents, underage workers and the like in their overseas factories. The article, which garnered thousands of comments, also sought to smear other large corporations with the some dirty brush:
Apple is not the only electronics company doing business within a troubling supply system. Bleak working conditions have been documented at factories manufacturing products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others.
Protests and petitions, led by hastily formed grassroots social activist organizations such as Change.org and SumOfUs.org, spread through the web as fast as a factory fire. Demands, however, were limited to “We want an ethical iPhone and we want one now.” The whole scandal blew over pretty quickly. Clearly, consumers are not unduly concerned with the conditions of workers who make their shiny gadgets.
How did this become a dilemma?
The internet has increased transparency, making dirty dealings in one country more visible to consumers in the other.
Organizations like Transparency International seek to expose corruption worldwide, with reports such as the recent Transparency in Corporate Reporting, which “assesses the disclosure of steps these companies have in place to fight corruption” and “to what extent are earnings and taxes in specific countries made public.”
Journalists are always trawling the net and social media landscape, sniffing out scandals that may embarrass high-profile corporations.
In the bribery dilemma of Pegasus International, the question appears to be: “Should we buy our way into the lucrative market of a particular country through corrupt means, albeit indirectly?”
But actually, that’s an old question usually answered in the affirmative. Codes of Conduct such as those of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) come across as naive with their vague statements about “using only legal and ethical means in… business activity.”
Nowadays the question for international companies is more: “Given that internet transparency makes it more likely we’ll be caught with our pants down, should we risk doing some dodgy dealings in order to secure our corner of the market?”
Is this right? Should we all play along – or should we boycott the products of organizations that act unethically abroad?
Why should we care?
If Apple didn’t employ those factory workers, they’d be starving at home. Presumably they work for Apple because conditions elsewhere are even worse.
If we didn’t buy those shiny iPads (etc), the world economy would be in an even worse shape than it already is. The growth of the technology would be slower than it is. Workers in Chinese factories would have less money, not only to feed their own families but to stimulate much-needed domestic demand. I don’t feel guilty.
Moreover, Apple has created a Code of Conduct for suppliers worldwide which is “based on strict international standards” and “truly makes a difference to the people who are involved in making our products in facilities around the world.” Tim Cook sent an email to employees, announcing that: “We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain.” Good PR? Yes. Just good PR? Maybe.
The dilemma of corporate transparency matters because internet has made commerce increasingly global.
Amazon now stretches its fingers across the globe – the most high-profile of thousands of e-commerce sites. Suppliers and customers often now cut out the middlemen and brokers, through direct contracts conducted online. And we all know the dirty word outsourcing.
The whole dilemma of how we respond to dirty business deals and dirty workers’ conditions has become a lot more visible in recent years thanks to the internet and social media, and will become increasingly hard to avoid.
As consumers we have a choice. Do we turn a blind eye or do we protest, either via social media or by refusing to buy a particular company’s products?
This has ramifications across the whole commercial sphere, and ultimately across the global economy.