On Worker Rights, Apple’s Credibility Gap Is As Huge As Its Profit Margins

Our guest blogger is Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

Apple’s response to its current public relations crisis regarding its labor force in China has been to promise big improvements in working conditions at its supplier factories. Unfortunately, there is good reason to doubt the sincerity of those pronouncements.

After all, Apple has been promising to end labor rights violations at these factories for six years, but has neither delivered on these pledges nor done anything to hold the suppliers accountable.

Consider the example of excessive overtime, one of the glaring problems at Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier. Workers at Foxconn’s plants in China have frequently been compelled to work upwards of 90 extra hours a month, sometimes far more, while the legal maximum in China is 36. Independent investigators have been reporting these abuses for years and auditors paid by Apple itself have just confirmed that massive overtime violations are still ongoing at Foxconn.

After these violations were first exposed in 2006, Apple issued a public report pledging corrective action. “Employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct,” Apple admitted, but “[Foxconn] has enacted a policy change to enforce the weekly overtime limits…and a management system has been implemented to track compliance… Supervisors must receive approval from upper level management for any deviation.”

Apple added, “We are committed to ensuring compliance with our Code of Conduct and will complete audits of all final assembly suppliers in 2006… In cases where a supplier’s efforts in this area do not meet our expectations, their contracts will be terminated.”

That certainly sounded like a strong stand by Apple: any supplier that did not meet the company’s labor standards would be terminated.

But as it turns out, Foxconn did not meet Apple’s standards. Instead, Foxconn continued to violate overtime laws, systematically, for the next six years (and counting). Since there are hundreds of thousands of workers making Apple products for Foxconn, the individual violations of Chinese overtime law that have been committed in the assembly of iPods, iPhones, and iPads now number in the millions.

Foxconn also violates Apple’s health and safety standards, an ongoing problem confirmed by Apple’s auditors. According to Apple policy, “The companies we do business with must provide safe working conditions…as a condition of their contracts with us.” In 2011, Foxconn’s failure to provide safe conditions led to an aluminum dust explosion that ended the lives of four workers and seriously injured many more. An independent safety expert had this to say to the New York Times about Foxconn’s practices: “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”

But despite Foxconn’s contempt for Apple’s labor standards, Apple never terminated Foxconn’s contracts. Instead, it massively expanded them. Apple’s orders at Foxconn are now reportedly worth $40 billion a year, many times greater than in 2006.

Apple is no doubt aware that rewarding suppliers that brazenly violate its labor standards is not an effective strategy for getting suppliers to stop violating its labor standards. Clearly, Apple’s priorities lie elsewhere. A former Apple executive explained those priorities to the Times: “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice. If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”

Apple cares about labor abuses only to the extent that they cause it embarrassment and threaten its brand image. In 2006, Apple was able to limit the embarrassment with promises of reform that it obviously had no intention of keeping once public scrutiny waned. Now, in 2012, facing a burst of media and public attention that poses the greatest danger yet to its reputation, Apple is offering another round of promises. The only way these will lead to decent conditions for workers is if Apple remains under such intense public scrutiny that it has no choice but to deliver.