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Originally published June 20, 2012 at 4:28 PM | Page modified June 21, 2012 at 7:21 AM

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Microsoft should ensure labor fairness as a Surface component

Microsoft should commit to stronger labor practices at manufacturing plants as it moves forward with making the Surface tablet to compete with Apple's iPad.

Seattle Times Editorial

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MICROSOFT is making its own tablet. Good.

The company announced Monday that it will make a tablet called Surface, going head to head with Apple's iPad.

The company has not said how much the Surface will cost, but Microsoft should limit the human costs now. Committing to strong labor practices would distinguish Microsoft from Apple.

Windows 8, the operating system that will power the new tablet, will mark a major turning point for the company. Microsoft used to be the most valuable technology company in the world, based on market capitalization. It ceded that title to Apple in 2010.

The company has coasted for too long on fat margins from sales of Windows and Office. We are keeping hope alive for Microsoft. If the company sells a few million tablets, it creates jobs in Redmond. Then the unemployment rate goes down, as long as our higher-education system can produce people Microsoft will hire.

If tablet sales wow Wall Street, the stock will rise. If the stock goes up more, shareholders here and elsewhere buy new homes, go shopping and give to charity.

Making an upfront commitment to humane labor practices would differentiate Microsoft from Apple, which was criticized for dangerous working conditions. The revelations in The New York Times about unsafe labor practices at Foxconn's iPad plants in China were shameful. An explosion from aluminum dust, a byproduct of polishing iPad cases, killed two workers and injured dozens. Workers routinely worked seven days a week without a day of rest.

The technology industry, birthed by dreamers who ascribed to the utopian ideals of "Star Trek," turned out to be no different from the textile industry of the 1800s.

To its credit, Apple has since committed to inspections by the nonprofit Fair Labor Association, but the moral price was high, even for devices that were, to quote Steve Jobs, "amazing" and "revolutionary."

If the Surface is successful, Microsoft could eventually create thousands of jobs. According to the Fair Labor Association, Foxconn employs 288,800 workers to make Apple products. Average monthly salaries range from $355 to $452 per worker.

Microsoft should release the names of its suppliers, join the Fair Labor Association and submit to more unannounced visits by third-party auditors. Audit results should be posted publicly. Apple has joined the association and committed to audits that have been published.

This is a higher code of conduct than what Microsoft currently requires of Xbox, mice and keyboard suppliers, a code it created with an industry group, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition.

Our region has long been a national leader in ethically raised and sustainable products, from food sources to energy. Workers aren't disposable plastic bags. Let's demand ethically made electronics.

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