Workplace safety bruises Apple
Weeks after announcing a greater resolve to improve working conditions at its suppliers, Apple finds itself on the defensive about lingering problems at its manufacturing operations on the mainland.
This has prompted Apple chief executive Timothy Cook to rally employees worldwide 'to dig deeper' and 'find more issues' so that their industry will know the company does not 'turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain'.
Cook's directive, contained in an internal staff memo released on Friday, was an apparent response to an earlier published report that suggested a lack of corporate accountability at Apple, arising from persistent workers' rights violations at the mainland factories that make its popular products that include iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers.
'Some former Apple executives say there is an unresolved tension within the company: executives want to improve conditions within factories, but that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products,' according to The New York Times last Thursday.
The report also cited a former manager at Foxconn Technology Group, the main contract manufacturer for iPhones and iPads, who alleged that the welfare of workers had nothing to do with Apple's interests.
'Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive,' Cook said. 'We are attacking problems aggressively with the help of the world's foremost authorities on safety, the environment, and fair labour.'
On January 13, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the Washington-based Fair Labour Association (FLA). The non-profit group was established in 1999, from a task force created by US president Bill Clinton, with a mission to end sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide.
'We welcome Apple's commitment to greater transparency and independent oversight, and we hope its participation will set a new standard for the electronics industry,' said Auret van Heerden, the FLA's president and chief executive.
The FLA, which also has offices in Shanghai, worked with Apple last year to assess the impact of the company's training programmes in raising awareness of labour rights and standards among workers.
'We are focused on educating workers about their rights,' Cook said, 'so they are empowered to speak up when they see unsafe conditions or unfair treatment.'
Apple will align its compliance programme with certain FLA obligations within the next two years. Also, for the first time, Apple revealed on January 13 its tightly guarded list of suppliers. It said the 156 companies in the list accounted for more than 97 per cent of its entire supply chain.
The disclosure is expected to help outside monitors from the FLA keep close tabs on the practices of these contractors, especially on the mainland where most of Apple's products, including their components and accessories, are made.
Apple's China operations - including the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau - comprise its second-largest market after the US.
'With the benefit of the FLA's experience and expertise, we will continue to drive improvements for workers and provide even greater transparency into our supply chain,' said Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice-president of operations.
Foxconn, which is the trade name of Taiwan-listed electronics manufacturing services giant Hon Hai Precision Industry, has been a lightning rod for criticism over workers' rights violations among Apple's suppliers.
The electronics contractor, which employs about 1 million workers on the mainland, was beset by a string of employee suicides at its factories in Guangdong between January and November 2010. There were two other reported worker suicides in May and January last year, but these occurred outside Foxconn plants.
According to Apple's latest supplier responsibility progress report, the company conducted 229 audits throughout its supply chain last year. This marked an 80 per cent increase from 2010 and included 100 first-time audits.
'With every year, we expand our [audit] programme, we go deeper in our supply chain, we make it harder to comply,' Cook told Reuters recently. 'All of this means that workers will be treated better and better with each passing year [but] much remains to be done.'
The Hong Kong-based labour rights advocacy group, Students & Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom), said the impact of Apple's membership in the FLA to fast-track improvements at mainland suppliers remained to be seen.
Sacom spokeswoman Debby Chan Sze-wan said Apple should focus on addressing the high usage of student interns at its suppliers' factories; excessive overtime; occupational health and safety issues at plants; and helping workers form unions, especially at Foxconn.
She pointed out that the spotty safety record of Apple's suppliers worsened last year.
An explosion at Foxconn's Chengdu factory in May killed four employees and injured 18 others. About 59 workers were injured in an explosion at the Shanghai factory of Ri-Teng Computer Accessory, a subsidiary of Taiwanese firm Pegatron.
In both incidents, aluminium particles were found to have provided fuel for the explosion. Apple said it was deeply saddened by those events and had established new requirements for handling combustible dust at its suppliers.
Chan said Apple also continued to 'turn a deaf ear to aggrieved workers over chemical poisoning' at the Suzhou plant of Taiwanese firm Wintek. This supplier said it had used a chemical called hexyl hydride, also known as n-hexane, from May 2008 to August 2009.
Apple reported in February last year that about 137 workers were hospitalised in 2010 because of n-hexane poisoning at Wintek.
'[Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs was indifferent to our poisoning and evaded his responsibility,' Jia Jing-chuan, a former engineer at Wintek, said in a report by Sacom last August. 'The new chief executive should live up to his corporate social responsibility. There should be policies to protect poisoned workers and cover the cost of their treatment.'
Apple sold this many iPhones in the fourth quarter of 2011, along with 15 million iPads. It earned US$13b on US$45b turnover