Clicktivism No Longer

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

SumOfUs is one of a recent batch of online mobilisation organisations – this one focuses on uniting consumers, workers and shareholders to hold corporations to account. Their most recent campaign is against the abysmal standards that workers in Chinese factories have to endure while our shiny iProducts are made.

By now we all recognise a campaign email – reader-focused theory of change + opportunity/crisis + call to action etc. But today SumOfUs sent out a completely different email – read it below. I’m seriously impressed.


This email is not a normal email. This email is not going to ask you to do anything. It’s long. It talks about big-picture strategy, not just today’s latest corporate tactic.

The conventional wisdom in online activism is that we shouldn’t send emails like this.

But the fight to improve the treatment of workers in Apple’s supply chain is going to be a long, hard one – and it’s going to be fought on the shifting sands of PR spin, against one of the most sophisticated corporate media apparatuses in history.

So we think it’s important for the entire SumOfUs community (all 240,000 of us!) to take a step back from the day-to-day and examine how the fight has unfolded, both behind the scenes and in the PR war being waged in public since we first started campaigning a month ago to get Apple to address the rampant violations of workers’ rights throughout its supply chain.

How this all started

Like many of you, at the beginning of this year we had only a vague idea that there might be something rotten in Apple’s supply chain. We had heard about the suicides at Apple factories, but not much else.

After reading the New York Timesexposé and listening to the This American Life episode in January, we started to learn more about how miserable life can be in the massive dystopian industrial complexes where Apple’s products are made.

As Apple consumers ourselves (most of our staff owns at least one Apple product), we wanted to act.

We contacted partners in China who investigate Apple’s factories, interviewing workers and former workers. We heard from relatives of Apple workers, thanking us for getting the word out. Like the letter we sent out last week from the pair of former workers, we were able to put faces to the statistics, and that motivated us to keep organizing to win improvements in workers’ lives.

Apple responds

Since the New York Times and This American Life reports and the launch of our campaign, Apple has gone on a charm offensive, hiring the so-called “Fair Labor Association” to inspect its factories and giving Nightline an exclusive, supervised tour of Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier. Meanwhile, Foxconn announced a pay raise and hired Burston-Marsteller — the PR firm that lobbied for Big Tobacco and helped corporations re-brand after the the likes of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the Tylenol poisonings, and the massive Bhopal chemical spill.

While disingenuous, these actions show that the company is listening, that it takes us seriously and wants to maintain its image. But Apple’s moves so far are classic “early stage” corporate responses to a campaign, where a company wants to do the minimum effort to make people forget about the problem, without spending any real money on problems that by definition require considerable money to solve.

For example, Foxconn has raised wages as a PR move before – only to immediately offset worker gains by raising the cost of its dormitories and cafeterias. The truth is, Foxconn can’t afford to truly raise real wages for its workers because Apple refuses to let its suppliers earn a substantial profit – Apple had an astounding 44% profit margin last quarter, while Foxconn earned a meager 1.5% profit.

As for the supposedly “independent” Fair Labor Association, who Apple has hired to “investigate”: It is both funded and controlled by the very corporations it’s supposed to be monitoring and has a long track record as a PR spin machine rather than an effective watchdog for workers’ rights. In his first few days in China, before even the pretense of interviews with workers, the head of the FLA gave glowing reviews to the press simply on the basis of guided tours conducted by Foxconn executives. He even asserted that the suicide cluster that prompted Foxconn to put up its infamous suicide nets must have been due to “boredom,” as if workers were leaping from buildings for a cheap thrill.

Journalists fall for these traps all the time. So the next time you hear a positive story about Apple’s alleged steps forward in the press, remember that they may well have been suckered by Apple’s massive PR machine. If Apple makes any serious moves in response to our pressure to improve workers’ lives, we’ll be sure to confirm it with people on the ground and let you know!

Keeping up the fight

Thus far, we have been remarkably successful at getting the truth of what’s going on in Apple’s factories out to the media. Thanks to each and every one of you who signed, called, wrote and delivered petitions yourselves, this issue is front and center with Apple, and it’s not going away. Thanks to the credibility of a petition signed by over 120,000 people, our campaign has been featured in Forbes, the Washington Post, the BBC, Le Monde and Taren was interviewed on Olbermann. We even latched onto a silly facebook meme to help get the word out about our campaign!

Three weeks ago, we delivered our petition (along with another 250,000 signatures from to six Apple stores on four conditents. Then just last week, we held a rally outside Apple’s Annual General Meeting of shareholders to keep this issue in the news, and attempted to deliver your petitions directly to Tim Cook. Around the same time, hundreds of you stopped by your local Apple store to take the issue directly to Apple employees where it matters most — its retail stores. Many of you were told by managers at those retail stores that they’d been told by Apple’s HQ not to accept our petitions.

This is how victories are won — Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, is crossing his fingers and hoping that this goes away quietly, that people forget about Foxconn, and that the workers once again become faceless statistics. What they don’t yet understand is that we aren’t going to forget.

Our basic demands

In the fight for better working conditions in the tech industry’s supply chain, Apple is the 800-pound gorilla. They are the largest public company in the world, with a centralized supply chain and a commitment to a perfect final product. They have $100 billion sitting in the bank, meaning they can afford to ensure the people who make their products are treated humanely. Yes, other companies are also guilty of poor working conditions, but none has the ability to change the working conditions for millions of workers like Apple does. If Apple demands change, that change will ripple throughout the industry.

That’s why we’re demanding Apple make a few concrete changes, like ensuring factory inspections are conducted regularly — and unannounced in advance to management — by genuinely independent workers’ rights groups. We want to see an end to illegal amounts of forced overtime, and a commitment to paying workers a living wage (before overtime is factored in). We believe employees should benefit when Apple profits from their work. And we want Apple to put in place real sanctions with teeth for suppliers who violate its code of conduct.

For consumers, the additional costs will be negligible. Apple currently spends $10 on manufacturing costs — including labor costs — for each iPad, and $8 for each iPhone. Meanwhile, it makes hundreds of dollars of profit off each device, which has helped it achieve a market capitalization bigger than the GDP of all but 19 countries. The main difference for consumers will be a longer delay in product roll-out, as the most grueling conditions currently occur when Foxconn workers are cranking the latest iPad or iPhone. The questions is not whether you would be willing to pay more for your iPhone, but whether you could wait a few months longer to ensure that the people who make it are treated like human beings.

The way forward

Apple provides excellent customer service and cares deeply about its brand – but is also one of the most secretive corporations in the world and has built an organizational culture capable of blocking out the most intense outside criticism.

Our job, as consumers, is to continue to keep the pressure on until Apple decides that the risks inherent in the status quo – the risks to its brand, its staff morale, and its loyal customer base – are higher than the costs of taking real action to improve workers’ lives. That’s what’s worked in past campaigns like this, and it’s what will ultimately lead to victory in this campaign.

It will be a long fight, but it’s well worth fighting. If we can change the way the largest corporation on the planet treats its workers in the era of globalized supply chains, it will set a precedent that will reverberate globally for decades. Together, we’re already forcing Apple to pay attention – and we’re going to keep on fighting.

Thanks for reading, and for fighting with us,
Taren, Kaytee, Claiborne, and Emma – the tiny SumOfUs team, working with you to take on the biggest companies in the world.

P.S. Haven’t read enough yet? Here are some more articles and resources to check out.

In These TimesApple turns to the Larry King of Sweatshop Scandals
SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior) video – The truth of the Apple iPad behind Foxconn’s lies
Mike Daisey’s Blog (Mike is the guy behind the This American Life story that brought all of this to light initially)

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