As the delayed UK launch of the Apple iPad approaches, the breathless stories continue, celebrating its general desirability and, well, Apple-ness. The company’s image is all about cool style; the global PR value of all this adulatory copy over the past few months has been massive. Yet, often hidden away in the business sections, stories have also started appearing about Foxconn, the company that makes the iPad and other Apple products (as well as those from other western manufacturers including HP and Nokia). At a vast complex in Shenzhen in southern China, with dozens of production lines, around 300,000 mostly itinerant workers labour to produce these desirable objects. 24 hours a day. The company is known for its rigid, semi-military corporate culture, with long shifts and 7-day working weeks reportedly expected from employees. The pressure would appear to be getting to them. Last week a 24-year old worker jumped from her apartment window and killed herself. She was the sixth Foxconn worker to commit suicide this year; there was yet another death a couple of days later which is being investigated.
With huge demand for the latest Apple goodies and a stretched supply chain, there is talk of enormous pressure on Foxconn from the Californian company to ramp up production and deliver as speedily as possible. Whether this is true or not, the reputational risk for Apple is enormous. Of course Apple is not responsible for these deaths, but consumers may not always see it that way. If the suicides continue, will the company really be able to distance itself from problems at its suppliers and contractors? A glance at the problems BP is having in the US at the moment, with the stricken Gulf oil rig, may provide an answer.