China syndrome redux: Why it really is about Apple

Rene recently wrote an editorial about the current controversy surrounding Apple and the working conditions in the Chinese factories where Apple -- and almost every other consumer electronics company -- has their products made. It was a nice editorial, but I disagree with it completely. Well, almost completely. I do agree that it's an important issue and that the discussion is good. He took a position and argued it well, that China was the story, and Apple merely link-bait. And it's that position I disagree with.

First of all, just because almost every other consumer electronics company uses the same factories in no way lets Apple off the hook. If anything, it just means those hooks are awfully crowded.

Each and every one of those companies, including Apple, are accountable for their own actions, or lack of action, concerning the working conditions in the factories where their products are made.

If Apple were to pull out of these factories, it's true that a lot of other companies would remain, but so what? Apple will have done something, and even more pressure could be exerted on the ones that remained, and they'd look even worse because they remained.

Change often comes from a single, courageous act that disrupts the status quo and sets into motion a new course of action that others simply must follow.

If staying engaged proves to be a better strategy, however, Apple could still be a greater agent for change. They could see to it workers were paid more, for example, or insist upon more reasonable working schedules.

Of course, Apple can't just give the factories more money. It would likely disappear long before it reached the workers, as money often seems to. But Apple could make worker wages a condition of their contracts. It would take time, and require enormous oversight to make sure the factories followed through, but it would be worth it.

Apple makes incredible profits. That's their job as a company. Using those profits to elevate the wages of Chinese workers isn't a net loss, however. It's an investment. Just like Henry Ford insisted on paying his workers enough so that, one day, they could become his customers, Apple would one day benefit from the more rapid establishment of greater customer base in China.

Yes, we in the Western world went through our own industrial revolution, and the working conditions were deplorable, but now we have labor laws and minimum wage, access to health insurance or health care. Unemployment and homelessness remain a huge problem, of course, and there's suffering and abuse of the system to be sure. But in general we as a society face a far, far higher standard of living than that facing Chinese factory workers.

And it's not okay to exploit that difference.

When the media reports on Apple's role in the Chinese factory system, when organizations plan protests, rather than say it's link-bait or opportunism, I see it as a call to action.

Apple is one of the wealthiest and most influential companies in the world. With that money and power comes responsibility. While having razor-thin profit margins certainly doesn't excuse the Dells or HPs, having hefty profit margins absolutely puts the burden on Apple to lead the way. They can afford to pay more. Customers like me might even be proud to know that Apple is paying more.

I buy fair trade coffee. I'd certainly buy an iPad proudly produced by fair labor.

Things won't change over night. They never do. The people who run the factories in China won't wake up tomorrow and suddenly start paying their workers better, or start making their working conditions more palatable.

But demanding change will make it come faster.

The more the media reports on working conditions in China, the more people are informed about it, the more the outcry that follows, the more companies like Apple fear the bad press and public perception, the more their brand or reputation suffers, the more they're motivated to take action, to speed up the change.

Apple gets the spotlight because of their size and their impact. They dent the universe. Instead of just denting it with better phones or newer tablets, why don't they really wind up and dent it by making lives better?

Tim Cook purportedly said, in response to these stories, that Apple "cares about about every worker in their worldwide supply chain."

Great. It's time for them to prove it.