'Ethical iPhone' protests hit Apple stores

@CNNMoneyTech February 9, 2012: 2:38 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Protesters visited a half-dozen Apple stores around the world on Thursday to deliver petitions calling for reforms in the working conditions at factories run by Apple's suppliers in China and other overseas locations.

A demonstration at Apple's Grand Central Terminal store drew a small crowd of around a dozen people, who peacefully handed their petition -- hundreds of pages stacked in a shipping box -- to the store's manager.

"I'm a big fan of Apple products, but I can no longer ethically support products that harm the people that make them," said Shelby Knox, an organizing director with Change.org who participated. "When people join together, we can hold companies accountable."

The protests are the offline outgrowth of an online petition drive launched two weeks ago on social activism site Change.org. Created by Mark Shields, a self-described lifelong Apple customer who says he was "shocked to learn of the abusive working conditions in many of Apple's supplier factories," the petition has drawn almost 200,000 signatures since its launch.

A parallel petition effort, led by corporate accountability lobbying group SumOfUs.org, has drawn another 50,000 signatures.

Both groups teamed up for Thursday's protest. The day began with petition deliveries at Apple stores in Bangalore and London, and will continue with events in in Washington, DC; San Francisco and Sydney.

Mike Daisey, an author and monologist who has been a vocal critic of Foxconn's working conditions, said the power of the petition was rooted in the number of signatures collected, rather than the number of people who showed up to deliver it.

"It's 250,000 people," he said at the event. "And it's also millions of workers who are at Foxconn on shift right now."

"This is a really huge step for us, in combining all of the voices we've collected from people all over the world asking Apple to clean up their supply chain," Change.org human rights organizer Sarah Ryan told CNNMoney in advance of the event.

Asked about the petition and protests, an Apple spokeswoman reaffirmed an earlier statement to CNN about Apple's commitment to monitoring its overseas suppliers.

"We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain," Apple said. "We insist that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made."

Change.org's petition asks Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) to develop a "worker protection strategy" around its major product releases to prevent the abuses that have reportedly occurred when major deadlines loom. It also asks Apple to be transparent about the findings of the Fair Labor Association, an independent watchdog group that Apple joined last month.

The FLA plans to begin monitoring the facilities in Apple's supply chain and to publicly post its findings on its website. Apple said it will work to align its programs with FLA requirements within the next two years.

SumOfUs's petition is less detailed and more sweeping. Calling for an "ethical iPhone," it asks Apple CEO Tim Cook to "overhaul the way [Apple's] suppliers treat their workers."

Horror stories have kicked around the tech industry for years about the conditions at the Chinese factories almost all major U.S. vendors rely on to manufacture their devices. The pressure has intensified recently on Apple -- the industry's most profitable and most popular gadget maker -- after a series of investigations drew attention to a set of particularly chilling alleged labor abuses.

An investigation by the New York Times shed light specifically on the harsh working conditions at Foxconn, a key Apple supplier. A story published late last month documented the human toll of a plant explosion that killed several workers.

In a recent CNN segment, a Foxconn employee spoke out about her working conditions.

"They use women as men and they use men as machines," the worker -- who asked to remain anonymous -- told CNN's Stan Grant. "I almost feel like an animal."

When asked why humans do machine-like work at Foxconn, she responded: "Well, humans are cheaper."

The Foxconn worker said that she made less than $1 an hour for her labors.

Apple is one of many companies that outsources its electronics manufacturing to suppliers across the globe. Change.org organizer Ryan said she hopes that garnering attention around the petition will push Apple to set a precedent for other tech companies.

"What we want is for Apple to take their motto -- 'think differently' -- and extend that to the way they treat their workers," she said. "We want them to be a leader in the tech world in not just treating their workers in the United States fairly, but also treat the ones abroad fairly."

As petitions are being delivered around the world, Ryan has hopes Apple will respond to the concerns.

"We're hoping that after all the collective petitions are delivered we'll get a formalized response from Apple," she says.  To top of page

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