The Promise of Good Followership – Apple Ripens

On January 25, 2012, the New York Times published the first of a two-part series headlined, “In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad.” The articles were landmark investigative journalism.

Before they were published, it seemed no one had thought much about how Apple’s iconic line of products was actually made. Instead, they simply appeared on a regular basis, almost like magic, emanations from the fervid, fervent brain of singular Steve Jobs. However, once the information contained in the Times became public knowledge, our collective disinterest came to a crashing halt.

The Times minced no words in disclosing Apple’s reprehensible labor practices. (Need I add that technology companies other than Apple, such as Dell, for example, and Hewlett-Packard, were no better?) Here is an excerpt from the Times’ original piece.

“Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records….More troubling [advocacy groups] say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories… killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions….”

The Times story broke not long after Jobs’ death, and the succession as CEO of Tim Cook. His initial response to the expose was to play defense, insisting the charges against Apple were “patently false and offensive.” Still, he did go on to say that the company would not turn a blind eye to whatever any problems, adding that “on this you have my word.”

Cook was as good as his word – if only because the media and the public held his feet to the fire. The Times had uncovered the blatant disparity between Apple’s shiny new products, and the wretched conditions under which they were made. So this was a story that had legs. Within a month after the series saw the light of day, Cook took his first conciliatory step: he requested that the Fair Labor Association audit Apple’s labor practices.

Less than one year after the original Times piece came out, there was a second front page story on Apple. This one was published on December 27 under the headline, “Signs of Changes Taking Hold in Electronic Factories in China.” The article describes how during the last several months high ranking Apple executives had become directly and deeply involved in how Apple products are made. As a result, the company publicly committed itself to several wide-ranging reforms, including curtailing workers’ hours and increasing their wages. Moreover the changes within Apple extend to California, where the company is based. In the last year, Apple has “tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, has re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, has asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China and has reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed.”

What explains this dramatic change? It was not that Tim Cook – not to speak of his predecessor Steve Jobs – woke up one morning saying, “Golly, gee, I’ve seen the light! Apple has to be nicer and kinder and more generous to those in its employ!” Hardly. Rather it was first and foremost the Times’ expose – an invaluable reminder of how vital to a healthy society is investigative journalism. Second it was the public response to what the Times had disclosed. The revelations regarding Apple did not fall on deaf hears. Rather they spoke to ordinary people, who were coming to conclude it was dishonorable to delight in a device manufactured under conditions described as Dickensian.

Once word got out about Apple – it got to the point of being skewered on “Saturday Night Live” – the downside risk was so great there was no choice. There was no choice for Apple’s leaders but to follow Apple’s followers.

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