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Jim Hightower: iPhones and the Lack of Corporate Morality

U.S. companies should go all-out to help meet the economic needs of the nation that nurtures them

Early last year, during an intimate chat and chew dinner with some Silicon Valley high-tech barons, President Barack Obama posed a question to Steve Jobs, baron of the Apple empire: “What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?”

Good question! To rebuild our middle class, we need to put more people to work building more stuff in America, rather than shipping all of that manufacturing off to China. Instead of answering, however, Jobs dodged the question with a blunt retort: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Well, why not? Why shouldn’t American corporations go all-out to help meet the obvious economic needs of the nation that nurtures them? The high-techers don’t mention the obvious reasons for their jobs dodge: raw corporate selfishness. Top executives and investors pocket more for themselves by hiring a cheap, easily exploitable offshore workforce. Rather than looking inward, however, they blame America.

First, they wail that American schools are failing to produce the high-skilled workers they need, so they must go abroad. Aside from that being nonsense, these very executives constantly demand that local governments exempt them from paying the taxes necessary to improve schools.

Second, they say that the United States lacks an integrated supply chain, which would locate makers of assorted computer parts right next door to assembly plants. But, wait — that’s their fault. Apple, Dell and the like have the market clout to entice suppliers to relocate anywhere in America. Indeed, U.S. suppliers say that the reason they’ve relocated their production units to China is because that’s where Apple et al. went.

Finally, industry leaders blame us, their customers! They assert that we insist on getting a new, cheap iGadget every year, no matter where it’s made or how workers are treated, so we’ve forced them to abandon America.

Hogwash. Obama asked the right questions, but why accept phony answers thrown at him by these high-tech elites? They can make iPhones and anything else right here in America — but they care more about their bottom lines than their country or their workers, and it’s time to call them on it.

One who should’ve been called out was Jobs — not because he was a billionaire superstar, but because he was in fact an industry leader who could’ve changed Silicon Valley’s culture of overpampered narcissism. After his death in October, this conjurer of such marvels as iPhones and iPads was eulogized as an inventive genius, an icon of American entrepreneurship and a visionary in the footsteps of Thomas Edison. Yes, Jobs was all that. And less.

Less, because he knew that a serious flaw was being built into every one of his iGadgets — a flaw that he wouldn’t fix and kept trying to cover up: Apple’s systematic exploitation of the workers who manufacture the electronic wonders that made him a billionaire.

Once proud that its products were “made in the USA,” Apple today is the Wal-Mart of high-tech, profiting by taking advantage of powerless foreign labor. Practically all of the 70 million iPhones and 30 million iPads sold last year were produced in foreign-owned factories, mostly in China, that constitute Apple’s global supply chain and are integral to its profitable business model.

Apple insists that it has a strict code of conduct to ensure that those workers are fairly treated. In 2010, Jobs himself gushed about one of the Chinese factories in his system. “It’s a factory, but my gosh, I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools ... it’s a pretty nice factory.”

But, gosh — independent investigators report that workers are hardly enjoying leisurely swims. Instead, 72-hours workweeks, forced overtime, debilitating stress injuries, child labor, overcrowded barracks, chemical poisonings, falsified records, humiliating punishments and deadly explosions are the realities of that “pretty nice factory.” But human rights organizations say that Apple routinely tries to hush up such unpleasantness rather than confront its ethical conflicts.

“If they committed to building a conflict-free iPhone,” a corporate accountability advocate says, “it would transform technology.”

Apple’s own internal audits found that more than half of its suppliers have been violating its code of conduct every year since 2007. But Jobs, a problem-solving genius with enormous power over his suppliers, simply let it go. As a former Apple executive noted, “If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”

Jobs certainly did build genius into your iPhone, but he also slipped thousands of human cogs into it. Apparently he had no app for corporate morality.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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