I Refuse to Buy or Cover Another Apple Product

It’s time for a tech labor reckoning

Alex Rowe
Alex Rowe
Jan 21 · 5 min read
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Photo by Nikolai Chernichenko on Unsplash

pple had a terrible revelation come out at the end of 2020, but thanks to other pressing news like the slow rolling chaos of the pandemic and the recent failed US insurrection, I’m worried that it went unnoticed by too many.

Right at the end of December, the online premium business publication The Information released a report showing that Apple knowingly relied on child labor for three years from one of their MacBook suppliers (roughly 2013–2016) without doing anything meaningful about it. Business Insider shared some additional details mixed in with their own reporting, and were unable to obtain any comment from Apple executives.

This is far from the first time Apple has been in the spotlight for supporting illegal or unethical labor practices. A month prior, in November of 2020, they cut ties with their second largest iPhone supplier due to rule violations in that company’s “student worker program,” which turned out to be a nice name for an exploitative trick. Essentially, young students were building iPhones under the guise of internships that would tie into their degrees, but it turned out many of them weren’t studying anything remotely related.

They’ve also faced recent criticism from the Washington Post for relying on supply companies that might be using forced labor from Uyghur people imprisoned by the Chinese government, which is also terrible.

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Apple has had labor problems for a while, but they usually don’t wait three years to fix them. Google search screen capture by the author.

If you do a quick Google search, you’ll see numerous incidents and allegations about problematic labor issues with Apple or Apple suppliers stretching back over a decade. What makes this newest story different and more insidious is the extreme level and duration of intentional neglect. Apple likes to pride themselves on a progressive image, and proudly touts their complex policies that are supposed to prevent situations like this in the first place with beautiful words on a whole host of fancy public-facing web sites. They have no excuse for waiting three years to do anything in this newly revealed scenario. The only apparent motivation was profit over human dignity and safety.

I’ve covered the tech and gaming worlds for sixteen years now across different publications, and I know that they’re both often tangled up with bad labor practices. But the stories that actually get out are often quickly hushed or forgotten. If more of them received more attention, maybe it wouldn’t be this way anymore.

Headphones and other gadgets that I enjoy recreationally are often churned out in overseas factories at high speed and under conditions that are far from ideal. The video game industry produces new stories of horrific crunch conditions surrounding the biggest titles every year. It’s easy for many customers to sit and enjoy these fun things without thinking about how they’re made. They come wrapped up in shiny marketing-covered packaging, ready to delight and entertain you without a mention of who soldered the parts or put in the screws. Was it a machine? Or a human working to their physical limits?

I don’t have a lot of resources on hand to even begin to fix this problem, or make too much of a dent, but I still have to do a better job. I can write pieces like this. I can try to more carefully choose which products I support. And I can use my small social reach to signal boost more stories about these offenses to my readers.

Apple has no excuses for inaction. They are the most perfectly- positioned entity to make a dramatic impact on bad labor practices in tech, and their production size and influence are large enough that they might be able to fix a large percentage of the issues all on their own. They’ve recently held the record for the largest market capitalization of any company in the world, and have billions of extra dollars and thousands of the world’s smartest minds at their disposal. They spend an inordinate amount of money making products, selling products, and lobbying politicians…though those lobbying efforts are just as often about skirting labor and repair laws to improve the bottom line as they are about anything beneficial to real people.

If Apple took a true stand, instead of pretending to take a stand with a flashy web site and then ignoring requests for comment on using children to help build computer parts for three years, the rest of the market might follow. They have all the cards and all the weight to throw around, and they wasted them on exploiting kids for money.

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A graph captured from Apple’s “Supplier Responsibility” site shows vague numbers claiming “improvements in performance” at Apple suppliers. During three of these years, Apple was knowingly exploiting child labor. That’s missing from the graph. Chart captured from https://www.apple.com/supplier-responsibility/

It’s gross in a simple and objective way. There’s no gray area here, and I just can’t support the company ever again. Writing about tech already presents a daily internal struggle about whether I’m “wasting my time on frivolities,” and that pit in my stomach is even larger knowing I’ve directly helped market a company knowingly making money off children in poor working conditions. This latest revelation is my personal final straw, and I hope it is for others as well.

I can’t undo the mistakes I’ve made supporting them in the past when I didn’t know they had done this, but now that I know about it I can try to make better choices. Consumers should hold companies more accountable for the way their products are made, and tech companies should be more heavily criticized for trying to hide these mistakes in a magical black box of non-information and marketing denial. I’m sure this Apple issue is the tip of a nightmare iceberg, and all I can do is try my best going forward.

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Alex Rowe

Written by

Alex Rowe

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

Alex Rowe

Written by

Alex Rowe

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

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