Apple and Foxconn: Sustainable Labor is a Must

[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.

Consider also that Apple has more than adequate resources to oversee and demand better performance from its overseas suppliers. Apple’s cash holdings reached $98 billion in January 2012 (more than the U.S. government), the deployment of which is considered a key challenge for CEO Tim Cook. One productive use would be to invest in enhanced monitoring and enforcement of company labor policies to prevent reputational damage to the Apple brand.

We can hope that the workplace reviews commissioned by Apple will be meaningful. Unfortunately, Reuters reports that the president of the Fair Labor Association, the entity hired to investigate workplace conditions at Apple’s top eight suppliers in China, suggests that suicides at Foxconn’s Apple plants might be due to monotony, boredom or alienation.  Severe alienation, just possibly. But boredom and monotony?

I also hope that it proves more than sadly ironic that both Apple and Foxconn publicize their green efforts. Foxconn’s website  prominently refers to Social Environment Responsibility and posts CSR (corporate social responsibility) reports for 2008, 2009 and 2010. Apple posts its environmental metrics and its actions on supplier responsibility.  Reporting is a start, but the treatment of workers needs to be made a core aspect of CSR and measurable results—not words on paper -- are what count.

If you want to drive change at Apple and among its overseas suppliers, here’s how you can help:

  • Let Apple know how you feel about labor conditions at its Chinese suppliers by e-mailing supplierresponsibility@apple.com. Feel free to send along a link to this blog.
  • Sign a petition to Apple at Change.org or at SumOfUs.org. 250,000 signatures had been collected as of February 9 and more are being sought.

UPDATE: Within days of this post, we've started to see progress on the Apple-Foxconn front. Over the weekend of February 18-19, Foxconn Technology announced that it would raise base wages at its Chinese plants by 16 to 25 percent, and will be limiting overtime.

On February 17, the Fair Labor Association stated that its preliminary labor audit of Foxconn's Shenzhen Apple plant had revealed "tons of issues." While such issues have yet to be specified publicly, they presumably extend beyond monotony and boredom, the factors cited as driving worker suicides by the Fair Labor Association earlier last week and quoted in my original blog.

The labor audit results are expected to be made public in March. I commend Apple for initiating the audit process and I look forward to learning what corrections are planned. Until corrections are made and verified, continued scrutiny of Apple remains appropriate.

It's worthwhile, as well, to note that Foxconn is reported to operate Chinese plants for numerous multinational giants, including Dell, Intel, Microsoft and Sony. A global sustainable labor standard remains urgent. And as labor conditions are improved and labor costs increase in emerging economies, perhaps it will become more attractive to shift some manufacturing and assembly work to the U.S. and other mature economies.

Apple store photo by 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com