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GUEST COMMENTARY: Buying from Apple supports tax cheats who exploit labor, human rights

Monday, June 27, 2011 | 7:19 p.m. CDT; updated 7:39 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 27, 2011

In college, I considered my Apple laptop a faithful, effective and occasionally even fun machine. A year past graduation, this constant companion to late nights spent studying, working or wasting time has aged into a decrepit device. Like the old Windows hourglass, its colorful pinwheel cursor consistently heralds interminable delays.

Similarly, my prehistoric mobile phone frequently freezes, drops calls or prematurely runs out of battery power. Even in those treasured moments when it operates at capacity, it lacks the touch screen, e-mail and Internet capabilities today's savvy consumers supposedly demand. By all indications, I'm ripe for an upgrade to a new MacBook, iPhone or iPad.

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Here's why I'm taking a pass:

Apple, like most other electronics companies, makes liberal use of an ore called columbite-tantalite — widely known as coltan — whose electrical retention properties improve the battery lives of electronic devices. While Australia is the world's largest coltan producer, suppliers for Apple and its competitors often prefer to buy their coltan at lower cost from mining operations in war-ravaged eastern Congo.

The money from these transactions rarely reaches the miners themselves. Rather, it's funneled to Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel groups inside Congo who control the mines and use the revenues to fund their operations in the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. Promises by the Congolese government to shutter such mines and by Apple to scrutinize its supply chains have rung ineffectual and hollow.

This "blood coltan" and other components make their way to China, where contractors assemble products for Apple and virtually every other major electronics company. Journalist and playwright Mike Daisey visited the Shenzhen, China, base of operations for Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturing behemoth that reportedly assembles half of the world's electronics.

He reported interviewing workers who often labored for anywhere from 12 to 16 hours straight or longer, standing interminably and finding little compensation for the inevitable health problems and unpaid overtime that result from such treatment. He also met dozens of child laborers, who often lived with their coworkers in cramped company dormitories under constant surveillance for any hint of complaint or worker organization.

The facility made news last year for a ghastly streak of worker suicides. Today's Foxconn employees are mildly better compensated, but they must agree to sign "no-suicide" pacts with the company — although the complex now features a network of "suicide nets," just in case.

Finally, inside the United States, where Apple reaps the benefits of America's taxpayer-funded physical and legal infrastructure — and makes billions off U.S. consumers — the company has lent its support to the ironically named "Win America" campaign.

Supported by several other tax-dodging corporations, Apple is lobbying Congress to let the company repatriate and keep some $4 billion in profits currently stashed in offshore tax havens. This is money that would otherwise be owed to the U.S. government. At a moment of fiscal austerity, when Congress and state legislatures are gutting programs that assist our most vulnerable citizens, Apple — like all corporations and billionaires that have benefited handsomely from the U.S. system — should pay its fair share.

Industry analysts have estimated the total production costs for iPhones and iPads at a small fraction of the company's revenues, especially in light of those lucrative monthly contracts and endless app sales. Apple can hardly argue that such abusive practices are necessary to its bottom line. But even if they were, do you really want blood on your phone, laptop or tablet?

Apple, of course, makes any number of innovative products. But being an innovator in technology shouldn't require being a reactionary on human rights — or being a shameless tax cheat. As an industry leader with ballooning profit margins, Apple can afford to get its coltan from Australia. It can shoulder the costs of a living wage and basic labor standards for its workers. And it can surely pay its taxes.

But for now, Apple has perpetuated the relentless violence in the Congo, abused hard-working and disenfranchised laborers in China and, for good measure, sought to stiff the American taxpayers who have made it so wealthy.

Sorry, Apple. That's three strikes.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant for OtherWords and Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was distributed through OtherWords.org, a project for the Institute of Policy Studies.


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Comments

Paul Allaire June 28, 2011 | 10:28 a.m.

That is an interesting article. However, the competing brands are also assembling their competing junk in the same places and likely with similar sourcing of raw materials. Is there a good choice?

(Report Comment)
Melinda Lockwood June 28, 2011 | 2:55 p.m.

To quote you, "Apple, like most other electronics companies, makes liberal use of an ore called columbite-tantalite — widely known as coltan..." "While Australia is the world's largest coltan producer, suppliers for Apple and its competitors often prefer to buy their coltan at lower cost from mining operations in war-ravaged eastern Congo."

So from whom are you going to purchase electronics? Apple products work relatively flawlessly and their customer service is always rated tops. More than we can say for their competitors. so -- where do we go?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller June 28, 2011 | 4:58 p.m.

Let me see if I understand the author's logic? Because the Congo miners and the Chinese assemblers are not paid a "fair" wage by his standards, Apple should purchase the Coltran byproducts from Australia, paying the higher price to support "human rights" of workers? After all, Apple's profit margin surely enables this noble act.

However, what of the Congolese and Chinese miners and laborers who will lose the their employment, poor as it may be, as the result of purchasing Australian? I suppose we have to destroy their jobs in order to save them.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire June 29, 2011 | 11:04 a.m.

I suppose we have to kill people in order to protect them from tyranny? (same argument)

(Report Comment)
Peter Certo June 29, 2011 | 12:10 p.m.

Thank you all for reading. Judging from some of your reactions, perhaps some clarification is in order.

First, I was hoping the article made clear that mining in the eastern Congo is a more lucrative enterprise for violent rebel groups than it is for the miners themselves, whose conditions border on slavery.

Second, I did not say to move the jobs from China, but rather that Apple could afford to pay a wage -- and provide for working conditions -- that don't cause people to kill themselves. If you wouldn't support this in your own workplace, it should take more than a shiny smartphone to get you to support it in the workplace of others.

More generally, the notion that such operations create jobs where there weren't any previously is overly simplistic. More often firms operated by multinational corporations disrupt local economies and create a dependence on such employment that didn't previously exist. I hope you won't equate criticizing such a system -- in which people are surely killed already -- to "killing people" to protect them from tyranny.

Further, in places like China in particular, such multinationals in a sense become complicit in a state program of repression. The people who work in Shenzhen are largely internal migrants from rural villages in China -- the best and brightest who escaped whatever hardscrabble village they came from to seek a brighter life in the city. But these people, who as Mike Daisey puts it might be the doctors, lawyers, or civil servants in a new China, are instead crammed into factories, constantly supervised, and forced to work for nearly all of their waking hours. This keeps their minds off organizing and their thoughts away from politics. American corporations, including but hardly limited to Apple, are abetting the Chinese government's repression of the country's best and brightest.

Finally, to those who have asked where else to go, the truth is that there is no good option; there are no fair-trade electronics. But Apple has both the capital and the self-styled image of a humanist, "different" kind of corporation required to make a change in the industry. If we just critique the industry itself, it becomes too easy to excuse these practices as just part of the business. These corporations need to be called out by name, or else they won't budge. Until then, I plant to keep my junky old devices as long as I can, because it's not worth the human cost of the upgrade. I would encourage others to do the same if they are able.

Thank you all for your comments.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 30, 2011 | 9:39 a.m.

I love reading about how all the problems in the world are some corporation's fault.

"columbite-tantalite — widely known as coltan — whose electrical retention properties improve the battery lives of electronic devices."

No, it's used to make tantalum capacitors, which have nothing to do with battery life in electronic devices.

"While Australia is the world's largest coltan producer..."

Actually this was not true as of 2009:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coltan

"First, I was hoping the article made clear that mining in the eastern Congo is a more lucrative enterprise for violent rebel groups than it is for the miners themselves, whose conditions border on slavery."

The Congo is home to one of the most ineffective and corrupt governments in Africa. Violence there would go on regardless of coltan - they have many other natural resources to fight over and exploit, and could be one of the leading producers of oil and gas in the region with development, with the potential to far outdo Nigeria in factional violence.

My point is not that it's a good or acceptable situation. It's that it's the nature of markets to get supplied by whoever can do it the cheapest. How is Apple supposed to know - with certainty - that whatever company is supplying its supplier (who may be supplied from another company, etc.) with coltan is getting it from a "fair trade" or even a legal supplier?

How do I know the CFM vendor I purchase produce from actually grew it himself? When I see "fair trade" on a can of coffee, how do I know that is anything more than a marketing gimmick? How do I know the "organic" produce at the store was actually grown organically? I don't. The conditions of manufacture and packaging for sale are largely out of my control. Sometimes you can detect fraud, other times you can't. Good luck changing that.

"More often firms operated by multinational corporations disrupt local economies and create a dependence on such employment that didn't previously exist."

Yes, they often disrupt the subsistence economies of poor nations and give the employees a higher standard of living. Whether that's a good thing in a resource constrained world is debatable, but these operations have no problem finding people to work at them. Why? Because it's usually a step up for them. See below next quote.

What employing entity doesn't create a dependence on employment that didn't exist before, anywhere in the world? Show me one place where people are largely not dependent on their employment (that has a life expectancy higher than 40).

(cont'd)

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 30, 2011 | 9:42 a.m.

(cont'd from above)

"Second, I did not say to move the jobs from China, but rather that Apple could afford to pay a wage -- and provide for working conditions -- that don't cause people to kill themselves."

If you want that, then you have to move the jobs to somewhere more developed, where production costs are a lot higher. Apple does not own Foxconn, or even purchase all that much of its output, and they have little say in how Foxconn runs their business. Foxconn could replace Apple a lot easier than Apple could replace Foxconn. And it would drive Apple's production costs so high they couldn't compete.

Here's a bit less slanted article regarding the conditions at Foxconn:

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/02/ff...

Two tidbits from this are that the suicide rate at Foxconn is still less than in China as a whole, and that they used to have a policy of (quite generous - 50 years of wages) compensation to families of the deceased, so at least some may have done it for the money.

By a lot of reports it's one of the best factories in China to work at. It's not our fault that China is decades behind the first world in working conditions. A lot of them feel they have it better than they've ever had. They'll catch up. In fact they'll probably have a higher standard of living than we will in 2100.

If their working conditions are a problem, don't buy anything Chinese. Good luck with that.

""But Apple has both the capital and the self-styled image of a humanist, "different" kind of corporation required to make a change in the industry."

No, they actually don't. Much of their supply chain is not within their practical control. For them to do so would raise their costs so much that they'd go out of business.

I've never bought anything from Apple, and likely never will. In fact, I'm rather proud of the fact that most of my stereo and other electronics are more than 15 years old (some are pushing 40). But I also don't bash a successful company for giving people what they want, particularly since the conditions that are being criticized for are not conditions they can be directly responsible for.

"Social justice" seems to be no longer the idea that people get the rewards they work for and deserve, and instead has become the belief that the rich and successful are responsible for the poor, and the poor are victims of the rich and successful. It's far more complicated than that, and usually attempts at redress end up making more of a mess than letting market forces handle it.

DK

(Report Comment)

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