Categories: MacWorkspace

Troubled Apple Boss Pledges Supply Chain Action

Apple CEO Tim Cook is “deeply troubled” and “concerned” about issues within Apple’s supply chain, according to an internal email to Apple staff.

Cook reportedly wrote the 26 January email, which was published by 9to5Mac, in response to last week’s The New York Times article, which painted the iPhone and iPad as modern-day blood diamonds – items that consumers demand, regardless of the terrible toll they may take on those making them.

Cook Offence

The seven-page article included details of an explosion in an area where iPad cases were being polished.

The blast immediately killed two workers, injured dozens and rendered the features of one worker “smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose,” wrote The Times.

Cook took offence to the suggestion that Apple wasn’t doing all it could to improve the conditions of workers at factories contracted by Apple, though he didn’t deny there are issues to deal with.

“Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are,” he said in the email.

An unnamed consultant for Business for Social Responsibility told The Times: “Companies like [Hewlett-Packard] and Intel and Nike push their suppliers. But Apple wants to keep an arm’s length, and Foxconn is their most important manufacturer, so they refuse to push.”

Cook, however, insisted that “no one in our industry” does as much as Apple to improve the conditions for its hundreds of thousands of workers. He continued:

At the same time, no one has been more up front about the challenges we face. We are attacking problems aggressively with the help of the world’s foremost authorities on safety, the environment and fair labour. It would be easy to look for problems in fewer places and report prettier results, but those would not be the actions of a leader.

Earlier this month we opened our supply chain for independent evaluations by the Fair Labor Association. Apple was in a unique position to lead the industry by taking this step, and we did it without hesitation. This will lead to more frequent and more transparent reporting on our supply chain, which we welcome. These are the kinds of actions our customers expect from Apple, and we will take more of them in the future.

The Times expose’ included video interviews with workers who described excessively long hours, short breaks and working conditions that include standing for such long stretches that some co-workers’ legs swelled until they could hardly walk.

Sweatshop Conditions?

In May 2010, the Foxconn plant turning out Apple products experienced its 10th worker suicide, which the BBC, among other sources, attributed to 10- to 12-hour work days on silent assembly lines in which workers were unable to talk.

In a February 2011 Apple progress report, the company detailed meeting with Foxconn executives and hiring an independent team of suicide-prevention experts to speak with workers about their quality of life.

“The independent team suggested several areas for improvement, such as better training of hotline staff and care centre counsellors and better monitoring to ensure effectiveness,” the report stated. “Foxconn incorporated the team’s specific recommendations into their long-term plans for addressing employee well-being.”

The Times story said that in 2011, Apple conducted 229 audits of its suppliers. Still, a current employee, under condition of anonymity, told The Times that the aggressive annual rollouts of new products have a significant impact on the working conditions. “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” the employee said.

Cook concluded his email by again suggesting he was more upset by the insinuation that he wasn’t trying, not that there wasn’t a lot to still be done.

Apple will “continue to dig deeper and we will undoubtedly find more issues,” he wrote. “What we will not do – and never have done – is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain.”

Michelle Maisto

Michelle Maisto covers mobile devices, Android and Apple for eWEEK and is also a food writer.

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