Pressure Builds on Apple to Improve Suppliers’ Labour, Environmental Performance

Lisa Genasci —  February 1, 2012 — 1 Comment

Articles in the New York Times and elsewhere last week have criticized Apple for using Chinese suppliers whose workers are ill-paid, overworked and subject to hazardous conditions.

In a full-page spread, The New York Times compared Apple’s financial strength and reputation for innovation with a less-flattering portrait of how its products are made: “ …the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions…  Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.”

An “outraged” Apple CEO, Tim Cook, responded swiftly in a strongly worded email to Apple employees cited widely, “we care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain” and “any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

The truth is, nothing like the manufacturing capability found in southern China now exists in the U.S. and nowhere in the U.S. could workers be relied on to dedicate the long hours under similarly challenging  conditions.  Recent attention has focused on Apple supplier, Foxconn, where the iPhone is assembled.  The facility has close to a million employees, many working six days a week, often spending up to 12 hours a day at the plant. Many workers earn less than $17 a day.  That clearly helps improve Apple’s margins.

U.S. news show host, John Stewart, last week described Foxconn as “Fear Factory”  and detailed conditions at the factory,  its treatment of employees, large dormitories of employees, repression of employees who try to unionize and nets around the buildings to prevent suicides.  According to Stewart, the cost savings on an IPod is 23 percent to the consumer.

Understandably there is anger brewing in the U.S. toward companies such as Apple that employ tens of thousands of workers outside the United States to take advantage of lax labour laws abroad. There is a growing voice in the United States for a boycott of the ubiquitous Apple products.

In a separate article, the New York Times pointed out that Apple employs 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas and many more people work for Apple’s contractors: an additional 700,000 people engineer, build and assemble iPads, iPhones and Apple’s other products.

When asked by President Obama last year about overseas workers and whether or not Apple products might be produced at home, Steve Jobs was quoted as replying that those jobs were not coming back to the United States.

According to the same article, the hugely profitable Apple last year, it earned over US$400,000 in profit per employee, more than Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

The stories on bad labor practices by Apple suppliers, however, follow five reports from a coalition of now 41 environmental groups in China documenting the performance and willingness of IT brands producing in China to address serious environmental violations by their suppliers.

Many of the environmental violations have led to occupational safety issues and hazardous chemical exposure for workers.

In the first of the reports, the environmental groups contacted the CEOs of 29 top IT brands, asking specific questions about suppliers’ environmental performance and provided evidence of pollution violations.  As they look to production abroad to skirt labour restrictions at home, companies look to avoid environmental regulation that should protect air, water and soil from excessive emissions.

The Chinese NGOs’ engagement process has from the start actually yielded fruit, with a number of brands such as HP and Samsung responding to requests for information and addressing issues in their supply chains. But a few, including Apple Inc., ironically were initially extremely slow in communicating, and less than willing to address the supply chain issues being raised

Hence, two of the reports, in January and August last year, focused specifically on Apple, which had failed to disclose adequate information relating to its suppliers or their environmental violations to the environmental groups, led by Ma Jun’s  Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE).

Most of the recent negative stories about Apple and the building campaign against the company fail to even mention Apple’s environmental lapses – including the New York Times full-page story, except in passing.

The Chinese environmental NGOs campaign to improve disclosure and environmental performance by brands and their suppliers is something we have written about here and here – long before the Apple news became mainstream.

In a significant success for the NGO coalition, earlier last month, for the first time Apple’s  annual supplier responsibility report  released a list identifying many of its suppliers and acknowledging some of their environmental and labour violations first publicized by IPE.

Indeed, a look at the reports showed that more than half of the suppliers audited by Apple have violated at least one aspect of the code of conduct every year since 2007, and in some instances have violated the law, according to the New York Times Story.

IPE’s website list of non-compliant factories in China reached 94,725, while the Water Pollution maps now used by many brands to filter their supply chains and make sure they are not using polluting suppliers, registered 6,220,696 page views.

IPE is now working directly with 30 such brands to screen suppliers and 550 companies have responded to being placed on the polluters list by seeking dialogue with IPE.

Since releasing its list of suppliers and acknowledging environmental breaches, Apple has also agreed to continue conversations with IPE later this month and potentially to encourage two suppliers to engage in a pilot third-party audit monitored by the Chinese NGOs.

In all, 3,122 companies have undergone a third-party audit or a document review audit process and this has led to 94 companies being removed from the polluters list.

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Lisa Genasci

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CEO of Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation

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  1. Environmentalists Name and Shame Global Fashion Brands « Social Ventures Asia (Lisa Genasci) - April 13, 2012

    [...] from the institute’s violations database. We have written about Ma Jun’s efforts here and [...]

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