Supplier Suicides: The Apple Moral Responsibility

Sometimes, the reports from overseas are so staggering that they're hard to internalize. When a Chinese employee of the Apple-supplier Foxconn Technology Group on Tuesday (May 25) became the 12th employee to attempt suicide this year and the tenth who was successful. That's stunning enough.

But now comes news of this unusual response from the plant's management. The Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper is reporting workers are being required to sign letters promising they won't kill themselves and agreeing to be institutionalized if management thinks it's needed. "If I bicker with my supervisor, will I be sent to a mental hospital?" the newspaper quoted an employee asking.

The Foxconn employee who died, Li Hai, was 19 years old when he killed himself after working at the plant for only 42 days, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

This plant, by the way, doesn't merely handle Apple. Hewlett-Packard and Dell, among other major high-tech players, also use the facility. What would be the response if this situation had happened in Silicon Valley? Apple's own probe has confirmed many workplace violations at its suppliers, and its response has been to insist all suppliers comply. But at what point does a humanitarian position come into play? There is a cost—a human cost—when manufacturers and their retail partners outsource huge contracts to areas that are notorious for mistreating workers.

Did Apple and others think those rock-bottom prices would fund top-flight workplace conditions? Or did they pocket the savings and take solace in the fact that the factories are thousands of miles away from headquarters?

To stop this kind of conduct, extreme and brave actions are needed. Yank—completely—contracts from some of the worst offenders, and do so very publicly. Move operations to regions that have an historic respect for workers. Turn this approach into a PR campaign that will make it easier to stomach temporarily higher prices and lower margins.

It won't take long before two things happen: Worker-friendly areas will tighten margins to land some of these lucrative contracts now up for grabs, and factories like Foxconn will start treating their workers better to try and bring back those contracts. Yes, the manufacturing firm would have to increase prices, but probably only to the point that they should have in the first place.

This story is not typical for StorefrontBacktalk; we generally shy away from political issues in overseas manufacturing outsourcing. But at least 11 suicides of young workers to make cheaper iPhones?

Memo to Steve Jobs: If Bill Gates can give away billions to try and improve the global plight, why not use Apple to do the same, even in a small way? Your customers are loyal and forgiving, especially when given a full picture of the reasoning.

Steve, when you lured John Sculley from Pepsi to Apple, you reportedly asked him how much longer he wanted to just sell sugar water. You argued that Apple was trying to change the world. Be true to those thoughts today, and do what you would do if Foxconn was based in Cupertino.

The teen-aged Li Hai was 19. Isn't that the exact age of your son, Reed Paul Jobs? If you want the ultimate legacy, Steve, think about it that way.