[Updated 2/21/12 with reactions from Foxconn and Apple]
I’m taking a detour from my typical commentary on green buildings and building energy efficiency to weigh in on the controversy concerning labor conditions at Chinese factories contracted to assemble Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
First, let me admit that I’m an enthusiastic iPhone user and have been known to text my husband from one part of the house to another. My newest alarm clock includes an iPhone docking station. I rely on my iPhone for everything from connectivity during business trips to making grocery lists. And I certainly hope that there’s an iPad in my future, as well as many subsequent generations of iPhones.
But first I’m looking for Apple to improve enforcement of its own supplier labor policies. The factories that assemble iPhones and iPads on Apple’s behalf have produced a witches’ brew of unsafe and brutal working conditions. During a seven-month period in 2011, two explosions at iPad factories killed four people and injured 77, according to a recent report in the New York Times. The May 2011 explosion in the Chengdu Apple plant operated by Foxconn Technology Group, said to be caused by an unsafe buildup of aluminum dust, killed two workers and injured over a dozen.
That’s not all. A May 2011 study issued by a Chinese watchdog group, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), reports 7 suicides as of May 2010 at Foxconn plants assembling Apple products, and additional cases of attempted suicide. Potential causes identified by SACOM in interviews with workers include excessive overtime (80-100 hours per month, versus a government mandated maximum of 36 hours); unsafe working conditions (workers have been required to handle chemicals with neither training nor adequate protective clothing); inadequate time for rest and social activity in Foxconn-operated worker dormitories; the use of public humiliation and punishment to discipline workers; and the denial of sick leave.
In its defense, Apple cites a number of exonerating factors. The company has a supplier code of conduct intended to ensure safe and environmentally responsible working conditions. Apple regularly audits suppliers with respect to their adherence to code requirements. Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association, newly engaged to investigate conditions at Apple’s eight top Chinese facilities, reports that conditions at the Foxconn plants are substantially better than the conditions at garment factories or other facilities in China.
From the evidence, I’d agree that Apple is doing more than many to work toward better labor conditions across its global supply chain. But I’d also say that Apple’s efforts have fallen far short of what is needed and what is possible. The New York Times reported in January that over half of the suppliers audited by Apple “have violated at least one aspect of the [supplier] code of conduct every year since 2007,…and in some instances have violated the law.” Would Apple tolerate a similar product defect rate? Of course not.
Next Page: Calling out Apple on supply chain responsibility.