$100 billion to Apple shareholders, any to Apple workers?

In conjunction with its April 23 quarterly earnings report, Apple issued a separate announcement that it is doubling its “capital return program” and will return $100 billion to shareholders by the end of 2015. This decision reflects the enormous size of the company’s existing cash reserve and, according to Apple’s chief financial officer, the fact that “We [Apple] continue to generate cash in excess of our needs….”

Missing from yesterday’s announcement, as well as from the last few months of discussion over what Apple should do with its cash reserve, was how those resources could also be deployed to make necessary improvements in the compensation and treatment of the workers making Apple’s products abroad, or selling its products in the United States. This neglect is unfortunate. These workers contribute directly to Apple’s enviable financial position, even though they frequently live and work under harsh conditions for meager pay. As I detailed in a previous analysis, Apple could also use its cash reserve to:

  • Fulfill its promise to retroactively pay the factory workers making its products for previously uncompensated work time
  • Boost the pay of the factory workers making its products to offset the reductions in excessive overtime Apple has (appropriately) helped spur
  • Ensure that all the workers making its products are paid a livable wage, a step Apple is theoretically obliged to take as a member of the Fair Labor Association
  • Reduce health and safety threats at the factories making its products
  • Provide compensation for the labor rights violations the workers making its products have endured
  • Narrow the gap between the pay of the workers at Apple stores and comparable college graduates

Apple can easily afford to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to such efforts, even when the new capital return program is taken into account. Apple’s current cash reserve is $145 billion, and according to Moody’s is twice the size of any other company’s. Apple generated net income of $9.5 billion just in the last quarter. The capital return program amounts to about $30 billion per year, or somewhat less than the amount of income it is expected to earn annually. In other words, even with the implementation of the new capital program, Apple’s cash reserve will amount to around $145 billion, or perhaps more, in future years. In all likelihood, its cash reserve will still be far larger than the cash reserve of any other company in the world.

Apple has the resources and the responsibility to take significant steps towards improving the pay and other working conditions of those making and selling its products. Apple’s new capital return program should not end discussion of what the company should do with its excess cash. Instead, the discussion should shift towards another consideration: how Apple’s cash reserve should be used to help its workers.