Let’s say Apple decides to take on this problem. What can it do to improve conditions at its plants? Despite its size, Apple is in some ways just as constrained by the realities of global manufacturing as any of its competitors. The Times makes clear that even if Apple were prepared to spend a lot more to make its gadgets, it couldn’t move its facilities to the United States, as many politicians would love for it to do. Indeed, it would be as unthinkable for Apple to move its factories out of China as it would be for it to move its headquarters out of Silicon Valley—only in China are there enough workers, enough suppliers, and enough flexibility in the production processes to satisfy Apple’s awesome scale and speed. (The Times says that Apple once estimated that in the United States, it would have taken nine months to recruit the 8,700 industrial engineers needed to oversee production of the iPhone. In China, that recruiting took 15 days.)
At the same time, it’s clear that Apple could do a lot more to improve its factories than it is doing now. Every year since 2007, it has conducted in-depth audits of its contractors’ facilities, and every year, it’s found a string of violations of its own standards. And what does it do about those violations? From all outward appearances, pretty much nothing. “Non-compliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time,” one former executive told the Times. “If we meant business, core violations would disappear.”
Last week, 9To5Mac obtained a letter that Cook sent to employees in response to the Times series. He denied turning “a blind eye” to problems, and said he was “outraged” by the accusations that Apple doesn’t care about its workers. But he did not elaborate on the central problem chronicled by the Times: Why Apple, with all its money and power over suppliers, hasn’t forced them to change their ways.
But merely improving working conditions is only a short-term fix. The larger problem for the tech industry is that, in terms of human toil, today’s manufacturing methods are unsustainable. There are 200,000 people on the iPhone assembly line alone. The work is dull, repetitive, dangerous, and low-paying. In response to scandals, Foxconn has raised wages several times over the past few years. As the demand for mobile devices increases, Apple and other computer makers will need many more such workers—but as China’s economy grows and the price of labor soars, finding people to fill these mind-numbing jobs will become increasingly difficult.
Foxconn’s executives have suggested that their long-term goal is to get humans out of the process completely. By 2013, the company plans to install a million robots at its plants, and as industrial artificial intelligence improves, it will surely rely more on machines than men and women. Foxconn has even researched the possibility of building fully automated factories—places where machines crank out other machines without any human help.
With its vast resources, Apple could speed up this trend by investing billions in robotic factories. This, of course, raises another ethical dilemma—is it really humane to replace human workers with machines? As awful as working conditions at Foxconn might seem to Americans, the jobs are prized in China. If pushing for improved conditions results in more automation—and, thus, fewer jobs—are we really doing those workers a favor?
In many ways, that question is moot. Foxconn’s efforts to automate its factories suggest that the way we make iPhones today isn’t going to continue indefinitely—that all those production jobs are bound to become extinct soon anyway. Apple would be wise to invest in that future. When your iPad is made by a robot, you’ll finally have nothing to feel guilty about.