year Apple hires private inspectors to perform an independent audit of its vast
network of global suppliers. These inspectors scour the partners for
signs of labor abuses. That's a bit unusual in the corporate world that
usually casts a blind eye to such things. What is more unusual is that
Apple publishes the report airing its "dirty laundry", so to speak,
for all to see.
Like the last
couple years, this year's report [PDF]
wasn't all roses. The report found abuses at many of the 127 plants
worldwide that make Apple products.
One of the biggest problem areas was child labor. By law in China
children cannot work until they turn 16. But Apple found that 91 children
were working at 10 of its suppliers' Chinese plants. In one case Apple
discovered that a plant had cooperated with a vocational school to fake
documents for 42 children to work. Apple terminated its relationship with
Another major problem was unsafe working conditions. In one case, workers
at a Wintek plant were using the toxic industrial solvent n-hexane in an
assembly and cleaning process. The company had allowed the building's
ventilation system to fall into disrepair and vapors from the organic solvent
poisoned dozens of workers. Apple has demanded the plant fix the
ventilation system and stop using the n-hexane.
Other problems discovered include excess working hours and workers being
shorted overtime pay. Also suppliers overcharged migrant worker
employment agencies in Southeast Asia $3.4M USD. Apple is forcing them to
repay this sum.
Interestingly, Apple praised embattled supplier Foxconn for its steps it took
to prevent more deaths following a spate
of suicides early last year. Foxconn, which employs 920,000
people in China, responded by raising
pay rates and installing
"anti-jumper" nets on high buildings in its factory towns.
Apple says these measures "definitely saved lives", though it
adds, "We were disturbed and deeply saddened to learn that factory workers
were taking their own lives."
Despite Apple's unusual openness about its labor problems and its apparent
attempts to fix them, it often is criticized as one of the electronics
industry's most destructive players in terms of labor and environmental abuses.
The key reason for this is Apple's demand for utmost performance and quality at
the lowest cost. Apple maintains huge margins on its high-end gadgets and
it is ruthless in its negotiations to obtain lower prices, dropping suppliers
if they can't keep up.
As a result some manufacturers are looking to cut corners in various ways.
For example Wintek used n-hexane at its factory in Suzhou, near Shanghai,
because the compound cleaned device screens better than alcohol, leading to
lower defect rates. Wintek never told Apple about the switch, hoping it
would give it a secret edge over contract competitors. The plan obviously
Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun, of the Center for Public and the Environment,
has helped various activists in China to compile a rival report entitled "The
Other Side of Apple" [PDF]. The report blasts Apple's quality
and price demands, accusing the company of setting up an environment conducive
The report surveyed multiple companies and found that Apple was the worst at
dodging requests by environmental advocates for investigations, despite its
yearly internal study. Mr. Jun told the
San Francisco Chronicle, "We originally thought that Apple, as a
corporate citizen, would take a leadership role, but now we feel they ended up
as the most obstructive."