Amid renewed reports of poor working conditions at factories making Apple products in China, it's unclear whether customers will demand change.
Some Apple customers at the Macworld/iWorld show in San Francisco Thursday seemed to react with a shrug to a lengthy New York Times story alleging poor working conditions at Chinese factories operated by Apple contractors. The story described fatal accidents at some plants, long work hours and crowded living conditions in dorms near work.
The report is unlikely to change Apple customers' buying habits, said Steve Hathaway, a show attendee from Hercules, California.
"Most all companies are getting their stuff made and shipped from elsewhere 'cause it's cheaper," he said.
Hathaway was asked if Apple customers would pay more for products from companies that ensure safety. "Apple already has a premium price, you'd think they should be doing something on their end of it to make it right, you know?" he said. "It isn't like they're passing on a huge savings to us compared to other PC makers."
But Victor Cajiao, who operates Typicalmacuser.com, thinks attitudes will eventually change, although Apple isn't the only electronics company with working-condition challenges. Customers will pay more, "especially Apple people who are known for being liberal and more aware of these things," he said. "But I think the stirring of the pot of this recent story has been good to make people take a second look. It's every piece of electronics, folks."
Apple representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the new report.
Over at Change.org, an online petition site, about 10 current petitions address Apple's relationship to Chinese factories. One petition, started late last year, asks Apple to end "slavery" conditions at its Foxconn contractor site. More than 500 people have signed that petition.
A second petition, started in mid-2011, says, "Dear Apple: No factory workers should die making our iPad." More than 190 people have signed that petition.
"The product release schedule of new Apple products is literally killing people," the petition says. "During peak periods of demand for the iPad, workers were allowed just one day off for every 13 worked, and were asked to work excessive overtime hours."
Another petition, started this week, asks Apple to protect Chinese workers. Apple products are "awesome," said Mark Shields of Washington, D.C., who started the petition. "Do you know the fastest way to replace 'awesome' with a terrible knot in your stomach?" he wrote. "Learning that your beloved Apple products are made in factories where conditions are so bad, it's not uncommon for workers to permanently lose the use of their hands."
Shields, a communications consultant, said he was "horrified" to hear of working conditions in Apple partner factories through a story on the radio show "This American Life," which he listened to using an Apple laptop and an Apple AirPort Wi-Fi router. "I hope they can do better," he said. "I know they can do better."
Shields' petition had 23 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
By comparison, a petition started in 2011 to have juice maker Apple & Eve stop using Chinese apples has nearly 1,000 signatures. A Change.org petition asking Bank of America to drop a US$5 debit card fee received 306,000 signatures, while a petition asking Verizon Wireless to drop a $2 payment fee drew more than 166,000 signatures.
Apple earlier this month issued a supplier responsibility report, in which the company lists its 156 leading suppliers. Those suppliers account for more than 97 percent of the expenses the company paid contractors for products including the iPhone, iPad and iPod.
Some suppliers, in recent years, have been under scrutiny for allegedly employing underage workers and not taking steps to improve work conditions at factories. Apple, in the supplier report, said it had stepped up audit efforts so suppliers stop employing underage workers and take steps to improve working conditions in factories.
Apple has already dealt with issues around working conditions in China, and the company will not exert additional pressure, said Michael Palma, research manager at IDC.
"In the end, I don't think they are going to change anything," Palma said. "They have gone through four or five major scandals with Foxconn."
Foxconn, which assembles products like the iPhone, iPad and iPod for Apple, has come under scrutiny over the past few years after a string of suicide attempts at facilities in China. Other Foxconn partners include Dell, Cisco and Sony.
"It's a really stressed-out manufacturing environment, but it's not unique to Apple," Palma said.
It's common practice to work long hours in China, and workers will continue to flock to the factories as the wages are relatively high, Palma said. "If you're an 18-year-old on a farm in China, it's a good thing for you to work in these places," Palma said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.