Is Apple Doing Enough to Protect Its Workers?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Questions are once again being raised about the treatment of Apple’s workers in Asia following a recent investigation by the BBC. BBC Panorama will show video footage from its investigation in a documentary titled, “Apple’s Broken Promises” on Thursday, December 18, and the news organization has also published an article describing what it discovered. The BBC sent undercover reporters into facilities located near Shanghai, China, that are run by Apple supplier Pegatron. According to the BBC, its reporters found multiple labor code violations, including issues with juvenile workers, mandatory overtime, unpaid meetings, poor living conditions, and excessive consecutive work days without a day off.

One of the BBC’s undercover reporters was required to work 18 days in a row despite repeated requests for a day off. Another undercover reporter described working shifts that were as long as 16 hours. “Every time I got back to the dormitories, I wouldn’t want to move,” said the worker. “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.”

It should be noted that Apple is a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an independent organization that monitors companies’ compliance with international labor standards. According to the FLA’s Workplace Code of Conduct, “Employers shall allow workers at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in every seven-day period” and “All overtime work shall be consensual.”

“We work with suppliers to address shortfalls, and we see continuous and significant improvement, but we know our work is never done,” said Apple in response to the allegations. Apple joined the Washington-based FLA in 2012, following several widely publicized Foxconn employee suicides in 2010. Apple also has its own Supplier Code of Conduct that its partners are supposed to follow.  Although Apple prefers to work to correct the problems it finds at its suppliers, it will terminate its relationship with any supplier it believes “is not fully committed to stopping the behavior.”

While the problems at Foxconn’s facilities may be the best-known examples of working condition problems found at an Apple supplier, Pegatron has also previously been cited for issues. In December 2013, non-profit organization China Labor Watch reported that a 15-year-old boy died of pneumonia not long after passing Pegatron’s pre-employment physical examination. According to an independent team of medical experts sent by Apple to investigate, the boy’s death was unrelated to his work, reports Reuters. However, since China’s minimum age for working is 16, Pegatron was technically in violation of the country’s labor laws.

“Worker safety and well-being are our top priorities,” Pegatron told the BBC. “We set very high standards, conduct rigorous training for managers and workers, and have external auditors regularly visiting our facilities to find areas for improvement.”

The BBC investigation also examined working conditions at some of the illegal tin mines on the Indonesian island of Bangka that are alleged to be providing tin to Apple’s suppliers. Many of these illegal mining operations rely on child laborers working in extremely hazardous conditions. According to a report from the Friends of the Earth environmental organization, an average of one mine worker a week died in Bangka during 2011.

Apple acknowledged that there were problems associated with tin sourced from Bangka, but claimed that working conditions would not be helped if it stopped sourcing tin from that area. “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,” said the California-based company in a statement obtained by the BBC. “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.”

It should be noted that Apple has made it easier for investigators to inspect its overseas supply chain by publishing an annual list of its suppliers and by allowing itself to be audited by organizations like the FLA. On the other hand, the multiple labor code violations recently uncovered by the BBC suggest that the iPhone maker still has a long way to go in improving conditions for its foreign workers.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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