A group is asking Change.org to withdraw the petition which asked Apple to protect workers’ rights in China. The petition, which had previously gathered over 255,000 signatures before being delivered in-person to Apple stores in major U.S. cities, including New York, recently made headlines following a New York Times series on the harsh conditions of factory workers in China. The series examined the working lives of those tasked with building our favorite gadgets, like iPhones and iPads.
But one of the critical stories that helped lead the crusade, and therefore the petition, was that of American playwright Mike Daisey, whose one-man show attempted to get his audience to think about the origin of their beloved iGadgets. Unfortunately, his story turned out to be partially false. Now a second group wants the original petition recalled, saying “Apple is already doing more for worker rights in China than just about any other IT company that deals with Chinese suppliers.”
Mike Daisey’s story, which became one of the most listened to shows on NPR’s This American Life, was retracted earlier this month, when it was discovered that Daisey’s story contained “significant fabrications.” (More on that here). His claims of children standing at Foxconn’s gates (the large factory contracted by Apple to build its gadgets), of a man with hands mangled by a factory accident, of workers poisoned on the job – all false. (Although cribbed from media reports, Daisey never saw these things himself, as claimed).
Motivated to get people to think about how the global economy leads to less than ideal working conditions overseas, it’s possible that Daisey’s heart was in the right place. One can never tell, when there’s money involved – and Daisey wasn’t performing his play for free, of course. The problem, however, was the media eating up the non-journalist’s tales and then reporting on them as if they were fact.
But back to the point of the online petition – did it ever really matter? Does the fact that it’s potentially being recalled now matter still?
The retraction of a petition such as this could be portrayed as a showcase example of slacktivism gone wrong. With a click of mouse, hundreds of thousands of consumers rallied behind the awareness-raising effort, when in truth, Apple was already on course to address labor violations, as pertaining to Foxconn and others. In January, the company released a series of reports detailing the results of supplier audits, and opened itself up access to an independent team of auditors from the Fair Labor Association to review its ongoing performance in these matters.
That’s not to say that Apple was innocent in the matter – the reports found a handful of underage workers, forced overtime, issues with benefits and other labor violations, but if anything, things were getting better. In 2010, for example, Apple had discovered 91 underage workers in 10 facilities. In 2011, there were 13 cases uncovered.
Petitioning a company for change, when one could argue that, in fact, it’s leading others in the industry who are less-than-forthcoming on the matter, seems misguided at best.
It also leads one to question whether or not online petitions really matter in the long run? Sure, they help to make headlines, but usually only after an issue has been brought to the attention of the public through other means, often the media. Does signing your name as another who’s “really mad about this” have any lasting impact on a company of Apple’s size? Do these petitions even have credibility when someone can start one based on false information? Do recipients take them seriously?
There’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer to any of these questions. A recent thread on Reddit had commenters pointing out several examples of online petitions having real-world impact, many regarding legal and governmental matters (areas where politicians sometimes do take into account the views of their constituents). But the issue was hotly debated.
It’s clear that the impact of petitions is hard to quantify. There are often inflated claims that a petition was responsible for change when it could easily be a number of other things (the old correlation/causation argument). It’s also clear that in some cases, petitions are merely just more examples of slacktivism.
Signing a petition as a part of some sort of “social activism” movement is a shot in the dark. Some percentage of petitions may help impact change, others linger on the Internet then die off. Signing one can be the equivalent of changing your Twitter profile photo or “liking” some cause on Facebook – easy to do, questionable meaningfulness. It makes you feel good, but that’s about the extent of it.
Did this particular Apple petition bring anything new to the company’s attention, or was it merely an echo of complaints, and the deep-rooted guilt of privilege that Apple consumers continually face?
Bottom line: if consumers want to really force a company to take notice of anything, the best way to do so is still the hardest for most to follow through on: stop buying the company’s products.
Update: Corrected to note that the group is seeking the recall of the petition, but it has not yet been recalled.