NEW YORK (MainStreet) – The scene could easily have been the start of an Apple commercial: Mark Shields was making hummus in the kitchen earlier this month listening to NPR’s This American Life streaming through his Apple Airport and playing on his Mac laptop, all while his iPhone sat on the counter nearby. However, this particular program happened to be about the controversial working conditions at Apple’s (Stock Quote: AAPL) manufacturing center in China.
As he listened to the stories of factory employees – some of them underage – literally working around the clock and putting their health in danger all for inadequate wages, Shields and many others listening were forced to think differently about the gadgets and the company they’d come to love.
“I had never really thought about how the Apple products were made. I just assumed a lot of it was done by machines, not people - let alone people who were treated so badly,” says Shields, a communications professional with the consulting firm Spitfire Strategies. “I love Apple and I love what it stands for. I want them to do better.”
In an effort to improve this situation, Shields decided to post a petition to the website Change.org on Thursday calling for Apple to be more transparent about these labor violations and to come up with a “worker protection strategy for new product releases.” Since then, more than 2,500 people have signed the petition.
Shields’ effort is notable both for how quickly it’s gained traction and for how rare it is. There have been a handful of other examples in recent years of people petitioning Apple to improve its manufacturing practices – including less popular petitions on Change.org and a small protest from a group called the Chinese Progressive Organization – but these have been few and far between. Shields’ petition happens to come at a time of renewed interest in Apple’s labor practices, driven in part by the NPR piece and a series of stories this week in the New York Times, but as popular as the petition is, it represents a negligible number of people compared to Apple’s overall customer base.
This is especially surprising at a time when consumers have shown their willingness to mobilize and fight back against other companies any time they raise a fee appear to take advantage of customers. However, according to several analysts MainStreet interviewed, manufacturing issues are generally not as ripe for consumer outrage as price hikes or service changes.
“For better or worse, these global manufacturing issues affect not just Apple products, but pretty much all consumer electronics, as well as clothing, shoes, automobiles,” says Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst with Gartner, alluding to the fact that many companies (including several of Apple’s competitors) rely on similar labor conditions in China and other countries. “It may just have come to the point where consumers accept this realization that a good deal of the things they consume have been produced overseas.”