As a prime example, only six weeks prior to the launch of the iPhone, Steve Jobs decided a glass screen was more practical than the original plastic screen, which he thought would scratch too easily. With US manufacturers unable to fulfil this last minute demand, Jobs knew he had to look to China.
When the glass for the iPhone arrived at Foxconn City in China, the world’s largest manufacturing plant, workers were called out of bed, in the still of the night, and onto the production line to meet the rigid deadline. Such flexibility would make it impossible for Apple executives to reconsider their stance and return to the US for manufacturing.
I’ll give you an idea of what Western manufacturers are up against in terms of competition. Foxconn is said to manufacture 40% of the world’s electronics, employing 230,000 employees, where over a quarter live in barracks, and can be called upon at any one time, without notice. Even in the middle of the night. Within three months after its launch, Apple had sold one million iPhones, and since then Foxconn has produced 200 million more.
To the Western world these demands are unfathomable.
Jennifer Rigoni, who was Apple’s worldwide supply demand manager until 2010, affirms ‘They [Foxconn] could hire 3,000 people overnight. What plant anywhere other than China can find 3,000 people overnight and convince them to live in dorms?’
A high ranking Apple ex-employee also adds – ‘You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.’
China has huge advantages over the West in terms of manpower. When Apple’s executives forecasted nine months to recruit 8,700 engineers required to oversee production, in China it took fifteen days.
Famous for the wrong reasons, Foxconn made news in 2010, when some 23 workers at its Foxconn City plant committed suicide in a period of months. And, two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to clean iPhone screens with a poisonous chemical.
But I suppose it is Foxconn City employees who pay for these ‘advantages’, with expectations for staff to work double shifts and sixteen hour days. With such high expectations for both product demand and maximum profit, it is likely the working conditions for Foxconn employees will not improve anytime soon.
Is it a question of success vs. ethics?
In this all-consuming and ever-demanding market, can a supply chain, particularly one as large as Apple, continue to thrive with its newly standardised focus on working conditions, costing the company significantly in terms of profit?
It seems only time will tell.
Let me know your thoughts.