MIDTOWN — A handful of advocates descended on the newly opened Apple Store at Grand Central Terminal to deliver some 250,000 signatures calling on the company to change the way it makes its iPhones, iPads and other popular products.
Representatives from Change.org are asking Apple to develop a worker protection strategy amid allegations of poor working conditions at its Chinese manufacturing plants.
The protesters were vastly outnumbered by a throng of reporters who swarmed them as they made their way— with a big brown box of signatures in hand — up the steps to the store, where an Apple manager named Ryan stood ready to collect them.
"We're coming together as fans of Apple," said Shelby Knox, 25, a rep from Change.org who came to the event dressed as an iPod.
"[The signers] want to be proud of their MacBooks…and know that their products are not the source of someone else’s pain," she added.
Both were inspired by recent reports in The New York Times and on "This American Life" that detailed harsh working conditions at plants that make parts for Apple products.
Mike Daisey, the monologist who did the piece for the popular public radio program, joined the protest.
His story on “This American Life” was based upon Daisey's visit to Chinese manufacturing plants and his encounters with the employees working there. He said he was not directly involved with the signature gathering, but when he heard about the event on Thursday, he decided to lend his support.
“I never thought about it before I went on this journey,” Daisey said of working conditions in China. “My hope is that people will start assessing the real cost of a device.”
The mass of media prompted several people to stop and inquire about what was going on. But the Apple store continued to attract visitors, and the main concourse was dotted with iPhone and iPad users undeterred by the unsavory allegations.
Julia Fischer, 27, who was visiting New York from Germany, said she prefers working on her MacBook Air to any other computer.
“I think if you start to look at the working conditions of everything, you can hardly buy anything at all,” Fischer said.
Douglas McClure was browsing on his iPad near the hubbub on Thursday. He said he also has an iPhone, and both his home and work computers are Macs.
“I do like their products,” said McClure, 47.
McClure said he was pleased with what he has read about Apple’s efforts at transparency and ensuring safe working conditions at its affiliated plants — although he did agree that working conditions could be vastly improved.
“We all want these things cheap. You know, Apple is a business,” he noted. “But unless we all change our ways — and get China to change their ways — it’s not going to be easy.”
Employees at the Apple Store in Grand Central refused to speak to reporters, but an Apple spokeswoman said the company conducted 229 audits at supplier facilities around the world in 2011 and reported those findings online. Last month, she added, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for workers.
"We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain," she 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."
She added: "Our suppliers must live up to these requirements if they want to keep doing business with Apple."