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Will Apple, Foxconn, & Sweeteners Satisfy Labor Activists?

{complink 2125|Foxconn Electronics Inc.} is either one of the most loyal corporate partners in the electronics manufacturing community or a patsy for its biggest customer, {complink 379|Apple Inc.}

Before you charge me with being too harsh on the world's No. 1 electronics manufacturing services provider, consider two recent developments. First, early this week, the Fair Labor Association began auditing Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China, under instructions from Apple, which faces a barrage of accusations of condoning labor violations at plants that make its products. Apple said the audits were “voluntary.” That implies Foxconn readily and willingly allowed FLA workers to turn the floodlights on its operations.

“Apple's suppliers have pledged full cooperation with the FLA, offering unrestricted access to their operations,” Apple said when it announced the beginning of the inspections. CEO Tim Cook had this to say:

We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers. The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.

I don't accept the notion that Foxconn cheerily invited the scrutiny. Few companies would ever do this. Granting such access inevitably turns up something, no matter how spotless a manufacturing facility might be. Foxconn agreed under pressure. Apple is by far its biggest customer and helped propel it to the top of the EMS rankings. The idea of turning down such a request from Apple is laughable. Apple needed to deflect complaints from workers' rights advocates and an intensely inquisitive press, and this move ensured that any blame would be placed squarely on Foxconn's doorstep.

That's the first evidence that Foxconn is willing to take a blow for Apple. But Foxconn is going further to burnish its own reputation and stop those who want to use it as a cudgel against Apple. Today, it announced that salaries for workers making iPhones and iPads in China will go up 16-25 percent starting in February. This will be the third hike in just under two years, according to a Reuters report. Junior-level worker salaries could rise to 2,200 yuan (about $350) per month from as low as 900 yuan three years ago.

Such a hike is incredible and probably unprecedented in manufacturing. Somehow, though, Foxconn is able to swing it without necessarily pushing the cost back to Apple in a business with extremely thin margins. Either Foxconn was overcharging Apple before, or it can now absorb the extra costs without disappointing investors. Whatever the case might be, iPhone, iPad, and iPod prices are unlikely to increase at a double-digit rate to offset the additional costs.

I want to return to the question at the top of this page. Will these steps taken by Apple and Foxconn satisfy their critics? Probably not, and this won't be because the actions are not commendable. They are. What may detract from the effectiveness of these moves are issues such as the timing and the controversial role the FLA is playing.

Two days after the FLA supposedly began its review of the Foxconn facilities, its president, Auret van Heerden, set off a firestorm of criticism by telling Reuters the EMS provider's plants are “first-class.” Apple critics have seized on this statement to claim that it selected an organization already seen as partial to businesses to audit its suppliers. However one looks at it, Apple and Foxconn still have much to do to convince folks their operations are above board.

In a subsequent blog, I will write about what Apple's actions mean for other electronics and high-tech OEMs and their extended supply chain.

24 comments on “Will Apple, Foxconn, & Sweeteners Satisfy Labor Activists?

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 17, 2012

    Foxconn should be able to spread the impact of the wage increase across its customer base, which means Apple won't be the only company effected. We may see increased prices across the board for all the brands Foxconn serves. More likely, though, Foxconn will squeeze its suppliers for better discounts or cut corners elsewhere.

    I am happy for the workers–if they benefit. If more productivity is attached to the wage hike, workers are in the same place they started.

  2. Clairvoyant
    February 18, 2012

    Good to hear that changes are to be taking place! Hopefully improvements continue to happen for the workers.

  3. Nemos
    February 18, 2012

    “go up 16-25 percent starting in February” At least, something “good” earned from this bad story, and it is also an excellent example to follow: you can do(achieve) almost everything until you want it.

  4. FLYINGSCOT
    February 19, 2012

    I wonder how wages can rise so much and the cost does not flow through to the end user. Maybe companies are taking lower margins.

  5. Taimoor Zubar
    February 19, 2012

    I think the wage rise given to the workers might be an incentive to them to give positive feedback to the auditors and not highlight the problems they have been facing. I'm not sure Foxconn cares too much about ethics so won't be surprised if that's the case.

  6. Susan Fourtané
    February 19, 2012

    Taimoor, 

    That's a good observation as the wage rise came in perfect timing with the audits. I don't believe Foxconn cares about ethics either. 

    -Susan 

  7. DataCrunch
    February 19, 2012

    Wage increases seem like a good idea, but I recall many of the workers are complaining (and those ending their lives) due to the working environment and conditions.  Does more money make the working conditions more tolerable?

  8. Susan Fourtané
    February 19, 2012

    Hi, Dave 

    Good question. I don't believe money is going to make workers conditions more tolerable if that is the main problem. As for the suicides, I prefer not to make assumptions in this topic as much of ending their own lives in many countries is part of the culture and we are not going to undertand this. There are similar working conditions in western countries, and we don't hear of workers comming suicide, do we? 

    -Susan 

  9. Anne
    February 19, 2012

    If the level of worker salaries could go up to 25 percent, hope they won't be working at excessive hours to complement the increase.

  10. Nemos
    February 19, 2012

    Nice observation Dave, and the answer is of course not . The monthly incomes doesn't have to do with the working conditions but it is something for the moment…….

  11. stochastic excursion
    February 19, 2012

    I agree that giving the workers more of a fair deal is a step in the right direction, but will this just lead to the kind of monetary inflation we don't want to see in China?  In the long run this could hurt the prospects of industrial progress there.

  12. Nemos
    February 20, 2012

    “In the long run this could hurt the prospects of industrial progress there.”

    I don't know where you are Living, but if you are living in Europe, it is now clearly that the low-wage incomes in China leading Europe in high unemployment rate because all the factories go there.

  13. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    Flyingscot, That's the mystery. How can a company increase its costs so dramatically and customers don't feel it? The increases over the last two years have added up to a more than 300 percent hike in wages so somebody is taking a hit or the company is not telling the whole story. It's possible the wage rise is not company wide but affects only certain workers.

  14. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    Nemos, Do you think the Chinese workers care? I doubt Chinese workers spend any time thinking about the impact of outsourcing on Western workers. Which brings to my mind another question: why should Western workers care if Chinese workers get fairly compensated? Is this all about self-survival, that is, if their salaries rise in China, perhaps OEMs will transfer jobs back?

  15. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    Stochastic, “A fair deal?” Whose job is it to determine the “fair deal” and would we all agree on what's a fair or not fair deal? I don't know any employee that says “the company is paying me enough”. Everyone wants more, always, and so the Chinese workers will probably be asking “more” soon.

  16. rohscompliant
    February 20, 2012

    Based on Apple's earnings and record profits; it is a fair bet that Apple is 'kicking' $$ back to Foxconn to pay for worker wage increases. This will probably never see the light of day but it makes perfect sense……………it is an infinitesimal amount of $$ Apple would pay based on the fact that they are sitting on more cash than any other company in the world……….wont be able to prove it but that would be my guess.

  17. Nemos
    February 20, 2012

    No they don't, and they have a lot of problems to care instead of caring about the wealthy Europe but all the world is like a scale and balancing all the time. A side effect in China may cause instability in the markets in Europe everything is connected. Most of the CEOs takes the decision without considering the consequences of moving a factory unit to another place.

  18. stochastic excursion
    February 20, 2012

    It's true, fairness, and even reasonableness is often a matter of perception.  If you were Henry Ford it meant paying your workers enough to buy the car they produced.

  19. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    Nemos, Yes. CEOs take decisions based on what they believe is in the best interest of their company and not what they believe is right for the entire world or even for the employees. It's all about shareholder value. If the entire world goes down the drain later they would still insist they did the right thing. That's why it's capitalism and not communism/socialism. Unfortunately, this winner takes all approach ends up hurting someone or everyone but the impact is never the same.

  20. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    rohscompliant, If Apple is behind the pay increase at Foxconn (and if it is absorbing the extra cost) this will eventually show up in its cost of goods sold. The company can't just hide this. It may show up in lower gross profit margins or operating margins. As a public company Apple may even have to disclose this if the increase is material. Analysts will eventually pick up on this and ask the company about the impact of Foxconn's wage increase on Apple.

    As you noted, however, the company has the resources to easily make the added costs look like peanut. With the amount of free cash flow it is generating and the current rate of sales growth, Apple isn't being endangered by the additional cost. Things may look different if it has to pass the extra cost to customers but we wouldn't expect this to hit Apple alone since the rivals patronize the same contract manufacturer.

  21. bolaji ojo
    February 20, 2012

    Stochastic, Henry Ford manufactured primarily for the American consumer. As a local manufacturer it made sense to include his employees in the classification of potential customers, hence paying them well enough to purchase Ford cars. Plus, Ford was not alone in paying workers well. The rest of the economy was booming and if Ford needed the employees it had to be prepared to pay them well or they might walk over to a rival, whether this be in automotive or machinery or whatever.

    In the case of Apple, the company didn't see China as a potential market for quite a while. It's been many years since it started selling the iPhone and Chinese telecom companies are only now getting their hands on the device. Apple's calculation might be different, though. With more than 1.3 billion people, China represents the biggest potential market for Apple products but knowing the limited purchasing power — compared with consumers in the West — the company probably didn't try so hard to cultivate the market.

    Still, even one-tenth of this market represents a huge opportunity for Apple. That's why it is making a play for them now but it doesn't have to help cultivate this customer base. It can simply sell to the newly rich in China. Paying its Chinese workers enough to be able to buy the Mac, iPhone, iPod and iPad might just be too expensive for Apple. It might dig into its sweet margins.

  22. Nemos
    February 21, 2012

    No I don't blame the system, and I believe also in the free business movement. The ability to move your “factory” anywhere you Like. However, considering the Nokia case (The Ceo took the decision to move out and to go in Asia ) it will not help because the problem is not on the production cost and this decision was taken without thinking.

    It is like to have in my house a broken window, and instead of fix in it ,I move out to a new house because of that.

  23. bolaji ojo
    February 21, 2012

    Nemos, I must admit that I didn't quite understand the reason Stephen Elop advanced for moving Nokia's manufacturing to Asia. It was more on the line of “everybody did it so we should.” The rest of the industry began this outsourcing more than a decade ago and it is more or less fully advanced. The problem Nokia faced was more than just manufacturing or cost. It was related to consumer acceptance of a rival's product. The shift of manufacturing to Asia won't resolve this.

  24. Mr. Roques
    February 24, 2012

    Do you think the relationship between Apple and Foxconn is too big now? (is there something as too big? or too dependant?) 

    Foxconn has to do what Apple says, and Apple has to go with what Foxconn can do. They basically depend on each other, I don't know which one relies more on the other.

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