The New York Times took a victory lap of sorts, when it published the latest installment of its iEconomy series explaining how Foxconn changed after global outrage over working conditions. In a way, a victory lap is warranted. The Times's series is partially responsible for raising awareness about how badly workers in Foxconn factories, elevating what had previously been rumors on fanboy blogs into Pulitzer bait. Nearly a year after the paper published a jaw-dropping story on the "human costs" of building an iPad, they've circled back to the Foxconn factory floor to find that things have improved, if only slightly.
Take the case of Pu Xiaolon. Before the mistreatment of Foxconn workers was making headlines, she had to spend 12 or so hours a day inspecting iPads on a rickety wooden stool. Now she has a chair -- with a back. She's also been indulging in the knitting classes that Foxconn started offering a few months ago. These sound like tiny improvements, but it sounds like they're having a big impact on worker morale. Ms. Pu, for instance, doesn't feel as much like a robot any more. "“There was a change this year," she told The Times. "I'm realizing my value."
Chairs and classes won't solve all of Foxconn's problems, though. It was nearly a year ago that Foxconn claimed to have fixed all of its worker issues, but as the months went by, more reports surfaced of insane overtime hours, student interns being forced to work on the assembly line and The company is still breaking Chinese law by letting its employees work more than 49 hours a week, though it says it can have this resolved by next summer, and student interns are still showing up on Foxconn's factory floor. We haven't heard of suicide pacts, lately, but we haven't heard of Foxconn workers jumping for joy at their wonderful new working lives either.
As The Times does a good job of expressing, though, Apple is going to have to get involved, if we're really going to see change in how electronics are built. Fat chance. "Apple is scared that if we open the kimono too wide, it will ruin what has made Apple special," said the former Apple official. "But that's the only way to really improve things. If you don't share what you know, then no one else gets a chance to learn from your mistakes and discoveries."