Apple designs and sells consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers and also operates retail stores. Its best-known hardware products are Macintosh computers, the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone – Apple is the world’s third largest mobile phone-maker after Samsung and Nokia.
Dear Mr Cook, I am one of the millions of people who use an iPhone every day. I often use it to reply to urgent e-mails I receive from China Labour Watch's investigators about the status of their investigation of Apple's supplier factories in China. I also use my iPhone to answer questions from journalists about the working conditions in those factories. As a labour activist who has spent over a decade fighting against sweatshops, buying an iPhone was not an easy decision for me.
Although the international anti-sweatshop movement has recently trained its focus on Apple's supply chain, I find that the labour conditions in Apple's supplier factories are actually not the worst of the factories used by multinational electronics companies there.
However, this is what 'not the worst' means for workers who make your products:
They work as long as 11 hours a day, six days a week, with only one hour-long break during lunch. For this, they only make about 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500) a month.
Those who work in the iPad case polishing workshops are exposed to vast amounts of aluminium dust and may be injured or even killed in an explosion should the dust ignite. This has happened twice in the past year. First, in May at a Foxconn plant in Chengdu (three killed, 15 injured) and then in December at a Ri-Teng plant in Shanghai (61 injured).
At the factories of Foxconn, one of your largest suppliers, 13 workers committed suicide in 2010. Foxconn's response of putting up nets on factory buildings to catch suicidal jumpers indicates that it believes this is an ongoing concern, since many of the factors that may have led to the workers taking their lives - including long working hours and social isolation - remain unchanged.
That Apple's suppliers aren't the worst in the Chinese electronics industry probably says more about other Chinese factories than it does about the ones your company uses.
As you said in your letter of January 26 to Apple's employees, Apple has done more recently to improve these conditions, having disclosed its list of supplier factories, made efforts to 'inspect more factories', 'educate workers about their rights' and even 'opened our supply chain for independent evaluations'. This assumes that the problem is with Apple's suppliers, rather than with Apple itself. How- ever, there are still two big questions that Apple needs to answer before it can truly claim that this is the case.
First, how can a company that claims to make working conditions a priority make such astronomical profits at a time when those making its products are obviously suffering? Recently, Apple saw its profits soar to new heights. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Apple made US$46.33billion in revenue and US$13.06billion in net profit, its largest profit ever and one of the largest quarterly profits of any American company in history. And you, personally, received compensation worth US$380million.
Let's do some simple maths. Apple's net profit of US$13.06billion in a single quarter is equal to the combined salaries of 300,000 workers at Foxconn's assembly line over 11 years. And your compensation alone could pay for those 300,000 workers' salaries for that quarter. And remember, those workers have to work 240 hours a month or more, and some workers are required to stand all day without a restroom break.
Second, how can a company with as much control over its manufacturing process as Apple not know what labour conditions are like in its supply chain? From our research, the production processes (and, by extension, the intensity of the work that employees have to perform) at supplier factories have been approved by Apple. Apple's quality controls mean that only those who meet Apple's standards can get a production order. The raw materials the factories use have to be purchased from a designated supplier. As a result, most supplier factories manufacture products according to Apple's specific guidelines and have no ability to alter them.
We believe that the answer to these questions is that the problem is not a result of a few 'bad apples' in the supply chain but is deeply rooted in your company's business model. It's a systemic problem resulting as much from decisions made in Cupertino, California, as from those made in Chengdu.
We believe the most basic cause of the problems at your supplier factories is the low price Apple insists on paying them, leaving next to no room for them to make a profit. The demand for astronomically high production rates at an extremely low price pushes factories to exploit workers, since it is the only way to meet Apple's production requirements and make its factory owners a profit at the same time.
To be fair, Apple's problems are not unique. They are faced by the entire electronics industry and its customers as they attempt to manage a global manufacturing system that locates factories wherever the cost of production is cheapest. The key choice Apple has to make as a company is whether it will try to shift the attention of journalists and the public towards the individual factories that make their products, or will sincerely acknowledge its responsibility for these factories' deplorable working conditions and make systemic changes to its supply chain.
Over the years, China Labour Watch has sent many letters to Apple about our investigation of its Chinese supplier factories, hoping that we could work together to find a way to solve the problems workers face. But Apple has never responded.
However, we now feel that perhaps the time for analysis has ended. There is a simple solution for the problems we have observed in Apple's supply chain, and it doesn't even involve raising the prices for consumers. Apple needs simply to share a larger proportion of its sizeable profits with the supplier factories it contracts with and, by extension, the people who make its products.
And, perhaps, if Apple's customers no longer have to worry about the ethical implications of buying an iPhone, it will be able to go on to earn even more in the future.
Li Qiang is founder and director of China Labour Watch