With Jobs’ Death, An Ambivalent Legacy in Asia

by John D’Amico:

With the death of Steve Jobs this past Wednesday, mourners around the world gathered to reflect on his legacy of innovation and brilliance.  His transformational impact as a purveyor of new ideas and new technology looms large in the minds of the grieving.  In Asia, one of the largest markets for and the main producers of Apple products, his death had a particularly resonant impact.  Although Apple enjoys much success as a brand in East Asia, Jobs leaves behind a uniquely mixed legacy.

Apple reshaped the corporate landscape in East Asia, turning tiny suppliers into major partners, creating tens of thousands of jobs, and revolutionizing business practices.  Canny investment in Taiwan’s Acer and Korea’s Samsung proved hugely profitable and effective for the company, which depended on suppliers throughout East Asia.  The Apple approach to design, branding, and public relations affected and continues to affect corporate philosophy around the world, especially among the traditional tech powerhouses of Japan and Korea.  The cult of personality surrounding Jobs still holds sway there as well: upon Jobs’ death, one Apple Store employee in Korea remarked, “I don’t personally know him, but I feel like our hero is gone now.”  Microblogs in China overflowed with millions of posts offering condolences and praise.  Flowers piled up in Apple Stores across China, Japan, and Korea.  In spite of the near-universal state of mourning, Apple’s presence and practices in Asia remain far from benign.  Parallel to its history of success at the forefront of the tech industry is a spotty and often unsettling record of human rights issues related to the practices of its industrial counterparts in Asia.

Across Asia, outpourings of support followed Steve Jobs' death last Wednesday. (Flickr Creative Commons/noppyfoto1)

Most are familiar with the 2010 suicides at Foxconn, a manufacturing affiliate of Apple in Taiwan, but less-known is the fact that Apple had heard about labor abuses at Foxconn as early as 2006.  An inhuman workload, teeming company dorms, and a draconian system of discipline pushed 18 Foxconn employees to suicide.  Security guards conducted cruel and humiliating interrogations on one such worker before his suicide over the alleged theft of an iPhone prototype, a clear consequence of pressure from the top to prevent leaks.  More disturbing than the suicides themselves was the way in which they reconfirmed the grim state of affairs in many manufacturing plants across Asia.

To Apple’s credit, it does release an annual “Supplier Responsibility Report,” and has cancelled contracts with companies based on severe labor violations, as it did in 2010 when it discovered that one of its contractors employed children.  Still, it maintained contracts with companies that “shipped hazardous waste to unqualified disposal companies” (link).  Of its many Chinese suppliers, only 61% adhered to injury-prevention regulations, and only 65% paid their staff their full wages and benefits.  In its corporate guidelines, Apple sets a 60 hour week maximum limit, which is not only regularly broken by its contractors but also stands in violation of China’s own 49 hour week limit.

Of course, Apple itself does not run these factories, and indeed many other companies engage in similar practices. But that doesn’t absolve Apple of moral responsibility.  In the crowds of people coming to Apple Stores across Asia to pay their respects, I wonder if any of them appreciate that behind the gloss of high technology and smooth PR lies the cold reality of exploitation.  It strikes me as ironic that the company that has come to embody progress and clean design depends so completely on such feudal work practices.  Steve Jobs’ legacy, especially in Asia, is defined by his fundamentally new take on technology.  Strange, then, how his company’s practices clearly reinforced the status quo.

John D’Amico ’15 is in Pierson College. Contact him at john.c.damico@yale.edu.