How Apple’s Foxconn problem is like Nike’s sweatshop problem, and why the outcome is the same

foxconn workers apple iphone ipad macIn recent weeks, we’ve heard news of riots and strikes at some Foxconn plants in China that are making Apple products. Earlier in the year, the New York Times ran a massive feature story detailing working conditions at Foxconn, which left readers with the impression that Foxconn’s plants, while not exactly “sweat shops,” reflect the vast and often troubling differences in workplace standards between China and the U.S. While Foxconn workers did reasonably well compared to their peers, they endured brutal hours and dismal living conditions to achieve it. The situation initially made news in the West after a string of suicides at the plants; the unrest at the end of September put Foxconn back in the news cycle – with one major difference. This time around, coverage was as likely to be about how the riots were effecting Apple’s delivery of the iPhone 5 as it was to be about conditions in the factories.

According to a survey by, the typical Apple consumer is a little more affluent than average. They tend to be college educated (67%) and lean more to the left of center politically (58% characterize themselves as liberal). In other words, the kind of people that – if you’ll pardon the generalization – would seem to concern themselves with the working conditions in second and third-world countries.

Apple’s situation with Foxconn brings to mind another large U.S. corporation facing wide-spread criticism brought on by its manufacturing partners: Nike in the 1990s. That scandal erupted after the sneaker and sportswear giant’s growth caused them to rapidly expand their overseas production. It, too, received widespread coverage in the press, including a 60 Minutes feature and cover stories on many of the top news magazines of the day.

Foxconn plant iphone appleAccording to the stories, Nike’s contracted factories were accused of unsafe and exploitative working conditions involving highly toxic carcinogens and child labor. High profile advocacy groups like Team Sweat were created to in response to the reports. Protests at Nike stores became an annual event, and even turned violent at times. The coverage was so suffocating that Nike chairman Phil Knight famously declared in a May 1998 speech to the National Press Club that “the Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse.”

To date, Apple’s issues with Foxconn haven’t received coverage either of the scale or the intensity that Nike dealt with at the height of the sweatshop scandal. To be fair, there are important differences between the two. The conditions described at the Nike factories 20 years ago were considerably worse, even by Foxconn’s unpleasant standards. And Apple clearly learned some important lessons from how Nike executive dealt with their issues in the media.

It took several years for Nike to present a united front in the face of criticism, where there was originally equivocation and aloofness. More damaging was the company’s repeated insistence that, since the factories in question weren’t owned by Nike, Nike bore no real responsibility for the conditions there. Apple has been far more proactive in investigating working conditions at Foxconn and making demands of its most important production partner.

Tim Cook Foxconn factoryNevertheless, the events of last month prove that there’s far more to be done.

The differences between the two scandals don’t end with the companies, however. We as consumers seem to have changed since the 90s, and not necessarily for the better. There’s a greater understanding these days that the goods we rely so heavily on are produced in – and often at the expense of – people in the developing world. Of course, this happens at our own expense as well, when you consider that the U.S. has lost 28-percent of it high-tech manufacturing jobs in the last decade.

And it seems we’ve made our peace that, because we’re unwilling to effect change with the most powerful tool available to all of us: our wallets. Between 1994 and 1998 – arguably the height of the Nike sweatshop scandal – the company’s sales went from $3.8 billion to $9.6 billion. And Apple? Potential disruptions to the iPhone 5 supply chain notwithstanding, the most valuable company in history grows larger by the day.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


Nvidia admits its 2080 Ti cards have a problem, but isn’t saying what it is

Nvidia has admitted that there is a wider problem affecting its RTX 2080 Ti Founders Edition cards, despite earlier claims to the contrary. It has also promised to continue working with affected consumers to replace dead cards.

Samsung patents show what Infinity-O display could look like on Galaxy S10

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.
Digital Trends Live

DT Daily: iPhone X problems, Single’s Day sales records, and more

On the 15th episode of DT Daily, Digital Trends' live morning show, Greg Nibler and Marie Pardo-Garber examined the news of the day, including iPhone X screen problems, Alibaba's record-setting day of sales, and more.

You can now message businesses straight through Google Maps

Google has been updating Maps with a ton of new features over the past few months, and now it's back with another one -- the ability for users to message businesses directly through the Maps app.

The Motiv smart ring is coming to 20 more countries and physical stores

Remember Motiv's activity tracking smart ring? It's back with a raft of new features that adds biometric identification and token authentication, all on a device that fits on your finger.

The best protective iPhone cases to defend against dirt, dings, and drops

If you’re going off-road or work outdoors, it could be a good idea to invest in a tough case. These are our picks of the best protective iPhone cases for all iterations of the iPhone, from the iPhone XS to the 7.
Product Review

With style and feature upgrades, Misfit's next-generation Vapor 2 gets it right

Misfit’s next-generation smartwatch, the Vapor 2, packs built-in GPS, a heart-rate sensor, and more, into a beautiful design that starts from $250. We take a closer look at the company's latest device.

All the Best Target Black Friday deals for 2018

The mega-retailer opens its doors to the most competitive shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 22, and signs indicate that the retailer means business this year. We've sifted through all of the deals, from consumer electronics to small…

The MacBook is smaller, the MacBook Air is faster, but which is better?

This year, Apple's MacBook Air got a powerful internal upgrade, but the redesign makes it slimmer and lighter. So should you get the MacBook Air over the MacBook? We'll compare both notebook's major features and help you decide.

Best iPhone 7 Plus screen protectors to shield your big, beautiful display

Cracked screens are expensive to replace. Fortunately for you, we've rounded up what's available in terms of protection for Apple's large iPhone 7 Plus. Here are the best screen protectors you can buy.

New sensor from L’Oréal tracks UV exposure to keep your skin safe from the sun

L'Oréal has announced a new wearable sensor that attaches to your clothing and can track ultraviolet light. The sensor uses NFC instead of Bluetooth -- meaning it doesn't need a battery to work properly.

15 tips for keeping your vault-dwellers alive in ‘Fallout Shelter’

The wasteland can be an unfriendly place, if you don't know what you're doing. Here are 15 tips that will help your vault thrive in Fallout Shelter, including information on questing.

All the best Apple MacBook deals for Black Friday 2018

Shoppers looking for a new Apple laptop could find huge savings on a new MacBook come Black Friday. Retailers are offering discounts as much as $650 on select MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro models this holiday season.

Apple discontinues AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule as it exits Wi-Fi router business

Apple is now officially no longer in the router business. The company had already stopped selling the AirPort Express, and now its retail stores and websites have stopped offering the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule.