this article appeared on the editorial page of the Sunday, April 1, 2012 San Jose Mercury

'Think different', Apple, and use some excess cash to help factory workers

By Ted Smith

Special to the Mercury News

Posted:   03/30/2012 05:28:57 PM PDT

Updated:   03/31/2012 05:22:33 PM PDT

In 1997, Apple unveiled an ingenious marketing campaign telling us to "Think different." It included posters of Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein and John Lennon to promote its reputation as the company that cares and is truly different. What a contrast to Apple's recent announcement on how it will address its $100 billion cash surplus.

In his recent news conference, CEO Tim Cook announced that Apple will issue dividends and stock buybacks, but not one word about any of the labor and environmental controversies that have been the subject of intense media attention recently.

What should Apple do if it still wanted to "think different"?



style of Foxconn, invite in nongovernmental organizations, independent unions and other legitimate labor organizations to train the workers to learn about workplace democracy so that they can protect themselves and assure a living wage.


Apple could insist that Foxconn open its doors to outside NGOs and experts to help develop safer and more transparent production methods. A small fraction of Apple's cash reserves could provide a huge step toward developing sustainable production benchmarks that would be a beacon for the industry. That kind of leadership would truly be a way to "think different."

Recent media attention, especially a recent New York Times series, has had a significant effect in bringing these issues to the attention of people around the world. There is a danger, however, that this breakthrough in awareness will be buried by the controversy over performance artist Mike Daisey. He claimed to have witnessed some incidents at Foxconn that in fact he had not.

Daisey lied to NPR's "This American Life," which later aired a lengthy retraction, and he has now publicly apologized. While he claimed to have seen things he hadn't actually witnessed, there remains incontrovertible evidence from other sources that vulnerable workers are being exploited. (see the recent interview with Boy Lüthje, a leading scholar on labor conditions in China, in "The Cult of Mac.")

We can't let this distraction sidetrack the key issues here.

If Apple's current leaders really want to "think different" and provide 21st century leadership, a small fraction of their "excess cash" would go a long way. They could recapture the mantle of the company that cares. Now that would truly be different.

Ted Smith, founder and former executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, is coordinator of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology and co-author of "Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry." He wrote this for this newspaper.