Apple Faces Fresh Chinese Labour Allegations

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

The iPhone maker is ‘deeply offended’ over Chinese labour allegations made in an undercover BBC Panorama investigation

Apple is once again facing fresh allegations concerning the treatment of workers in China making its products, and issues about its supply chain.

It comes after the airing last night of an undercover BBC Panorama investigation, called “Apple’s Broken Promises.

Apple said that it found the suggestions made in the programme, “deeply offensive.”

Labour Allegations

The investigative television program filmed conditions on an iPhone 6 production line at the Pegatron factories on the outskirts of Shanghai.

Panorama claimed that the footage showed Apple’s promises to protect workers were routinely broken, although Apple has strongly disagreed with the programme’s conclusions. This is not the first time that Apple has been hit with these allegations.

Panorama allegedly that it found standards on workers’ hours, ID cards, dormitories, work meetings and juvenile workers were being breached at the Pegatron factories. It said that workers regularly exceeded 60 hours a week – contravening Apple’s guidelines.

It also filmed exhausted workers falling asleep on their 12-hour shifts at the Pegatron factories. But Apple said it was very common practice for workers to nap during breaks, but it would investigate any evidence they were falling asleep while working.

The TV programme cited one undercover reporter, working in a factory making parts for Apple computers, who had to work 18 days in a row despite repeated requests for a day off.

Another reporter, whose longest shift was 16 hours, reportedly said: “Every time I got back to the dormitories, I wouldn’t want to move. “Even if I was hungry I wouldn’t want to get up to eat. I just wanted to lie down and rest. I was unable to sleep at night because of the stress.”

Apple apparently declined to be interviewed for the programme, but said in a statement: “We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions,” said the company. “We work with suppliers to address shortfalls, and we see continuous and significant improvement, but we know our work is never done.”

Pegatron has also pledged to investigate the BBC allegations.

Foxconn factory Shenzhen China 2005 - by Steve Jurvetson from WikimediaThe Panorama program also highlighted Apple’s past labour problems in China. Poor factory conditions were blamed in 2010 when 14 workers killed themselves at Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn.

Steve Jobs himself personally dismissed claims that Foxconn was operating a sweatshop factory back in 2010.

Supply Chain Allegation

The Panorama programme also highlighted how worker standards were routinely breached on the factory floor, and the fact that overtime, which is supposed to be voluntary, was in many cases mandatory. Another issue raised was cramped dormitory living conditions for factory workers.

Towards the end of the end of the programme, Panorama then examined Apple’s supply chain when it traveled to the Indonesian island of Bangka.

Apple claims it is dedicated to the ethical sourcing of minerals, but the programme found evidence that tin from illegal mines was entering the Apple supply chain, because middlemen said they were selling tin from illegal mines to a smelter on Apple’s list of suppliers.

It also found children digging tin ore out by hand in extremely dangerous conditions. These illegal miners tend to be at risk of being buried alive when the walls of sand or mud collapse.

Apple responded to this supply chain allegation, and said it was a complex situation on Bangka with tens of thousands of miners selling tin through many middle men.

“The simplest course of action would be for Apple to unilaterally refuse any tin from Indonesian mines. That would be easy for us to do and would certainly shield us from criticism,” Apple was quoted by the BBC as saying. “”But that would also be the lazy and cowardly path, since it would do nothing to improve the situation. We have chosen to stay engaged and attempt to drive changes on the ground.”

Apple Stitch Up?

Apple has been at the centre of Chinese labour allegations for a number of years now. But many feel that the company is being unfairly targeted, as many of the issues affect most tech companies who sell hardware.

These companies often have to rely on third party manufacturers to make their devices, and utilise third-party suppliers to source the raw materials. Microsoft for example has also faced allegations of worrying treatment of staff at the KYE factory in Dongguan City, China

And to be fair to Apple, the company has done much to try and improve worker conditions over the years, and it regularly publishes an audit on its supply chain to see how well or badly it is doing in clamping down on abuses.

In August, Apple banned two harmful chemicals from its Chinese suppliers’ factories after concerns about the health of workers involved with the assembly of the iPhone and iPad.

UPDATE: Apple ‘Deeply Offended’

Apple contacted TechweekEurope to highlight its response to the Panorama investigation.

In an email to its UK staff and published by the Daily Telegraph, Apple senior VP of operations Jeff Williams said both he and chief executive Tim Cook were “deeply offended by the suggestion that Apple would break a promise to the workers in our supply chain or mislead our customers in any way.”

“We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions, to discover and investigate problems, to fix and follow through when issues arise, and to provide transparency into the operations of our suppliers,” wrote Williams.

“I want you to know that more than 1400 of your Apple coworkers are stationed in China to manage our manufacturing operations,” he wrote. “They are in the factories constantly — talented engineers and managers who are also compassionate people, trained to speak up when they see safety risks or mistreatment. We also have a team of experts dedicated solely to driving compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct across our vast supply chain.”

“In 2014 alone, our Supplier Responsibility team completed 630 comprehensive, in-person audits deep into our supply chain,” wrote Williams. “These audits include face-to-face interviews with workers, away from their managers, in their native language. Sometimes critics point to the discovery of problems as evidence that the process isn’t working. The reality is that we find violations in every audit we have ever performed, no matter how sophisticated the company we’re auditing. We find problems, we drive improvement, and then we raise the bar.”

“Panorama’s report implied that Apple isn’t improving working conditions,” he added. “Let me tell you, nothing could be further from the truth.”

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