At first, there seems to be a banal inevitability to headlines about Apple benefitting from shady labor practices, which makes it easy to sweep reports that Apple’s flagship luxury phone, the iPhone X, was reportedly manufactured using illegal student labor. Much like news about the president saying terrible, indefensible things or that yet another beloved media icon is facing allegations of being a sexual predator, it’s almost part of the background radiation of our times; Al Franken has been accused of assaulting a sleeping woman, and the most popular phone in the world is reportedly being built by exploited Chinese labor.
What else is new?
That attitude, however, may not apply here; we live in strange and angry times, and the vox populi is much less forgiving these days than it might have been even eighteen months ago, let alone in 2012 when Foxconn’s illegal practices were first brought to light in a partially-retracted episode of NPR’s This American Life. The Chinese manufacturing giant – one of Apple’s biggest partners in the world – has, despite that retraction, been plagued by accusations of unethical practices. It’s unfortunately a common woe in the technology sector, but one which Apple, due to its visibility and leadership, is uniquely vulnerable to. Foxconn in particular has been noted for a rash of worker suicides since 2010 at its massive plant in Longhua where the bulk of Apple products are assembled.
So the fact that Foxconn is yet again in the news for engaging in illegal labor practices isn’t surprising, but it’s something Apple can’t afford to sweep under the rug.
Here’s the skinny, in case you’ve missed it under the crushing weight of the looming destruction of net neutrality and the president threatening nuclear war with North Korea: six high school students have come forward accusing Foxconn of making them work long hours of illegal overtime as the company struggled to catch up after summer production delays of the iPhone X. The students maintain they were forced to work there by their school in order to graduate, while both Foxconn and their school maintain the work was voluntary; for its part, the local government of Henan province mandated that student labor, where available, be sent to Foxconn to help meet demand.
In other words, it’s a scandal where no one looks good. And while, in the annals of labor disputes generally and of Foxconn specifically, it isn’t the biggest scandal in the world, it only shines a light on an ongoing story that Apple would certainly wish away if it could: its inability to reliably supply the world with its coveted products without resorting to partnerships with demonstrably unethical companies like Foxconn and its ongoing willingness to tolerate questionable, if not illegal labor practices.