Apple suppliers accused of poor treatment of workers

Apple has again come under fire for the treatment of workers in Chinese factories which make its products, following a new investigation by BBC Panorama.

In a programme which aired last night (18 December), the BBC sent undercover reporters to work at a Pegatron factory in Shanghai – one of Apple’s major suppliers. The reporters discovered exhausted employees, inadequate training and other harsh working conditions. (Scroll down for video exerpt).

One undercover reporter working on the iPhone 6 production line had to work for 18 days in a row despite repeated requests for a day off, the BBC said. Other workers regularly exceeded 60 hours a week – contravening Apple’s guidance – and standards on ID cards, dormitories, work meetings and juvenile workers were also reportedly breached.

In the programme, one worker – whose longest shift was 16 hours – said: “Every time I got back to the dormitories, I wouldn’t want to move. Even if I was hungry I wouldn’t want to get up to eat. I just wanted to lie down and rest. I was unable to sleep at night because of the stress.”

Apple’s response

The BBC said Apple had declined to be interviewed for the programme, but the tech giant has disputed the programmes findings and insisted it is working with its suppliers to improve working conditions.

“We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions,” the company said in a statement. “We work with suppliers to address shortfalls, and we see continuous and significant improvement, but we know our work is never done.”

Apple’s published standards of conduct from suppliers can be read here.

Apple’s suppliers have been accused of maintaining poor working conditions on several occasions over the past few years. In 2010, 14 workers killed themselves at Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn. Following those suicides, Apple published a set of standards spelling out how factory workers should be treated, and transferred some of its production work to Pegatron.

Pegatron said it was looking into Panorama’s findings. “Worker safety and well-being are our top priorities,” it said. “We set very high standards, conduct rigorous training for managers and workers, and have external auditors regularly visiting our facilities to find areas for improvement.”

BBC Panorama also travelled to the Indonesian island of Bangka, where it reported that children as young as 12 have been involved in gathering tin ore, used by tech firms across the world. Apple, which promotes ethically-sourced minerals, told the BBC it was attempting to drive changes, and that withdrawing from Indonesian mines altogether would be “the lazy and cowardly path, since it would do nothing to improve the situation”.

Credit where it’s due

Writing in a blog post about the Panorama programme, Friends of the Earth campaigner Julian Kirby gave Apple “credit where it’s due”.

“Apple has played a leading role in an industry group that’s been working with Dutch quango the Sustainable Trade Initiative to see if it’s possible to mine tin more sustainably,” wrote Kirby. “It’s also won praise for improving the transparency of its supply chains and working to weed out bad practice.

“But maybe I’m feeling too sorry for Apple. It’s a company, after all. And companies tend to be pretty much hardwired to prioritise profits over everything else. And this is why, whilst we should encourage companies to be better global citizens and praise them for good stuff, we need rules, we need regulation.

“We need government action to ensure products are designed to be reused, recycled, and built to last. And we need legislation to help companies face up to the impacts of their operations and the implications of their throw-away business models by publishing those impacts and what they plan to do to address them.”

VIDEO: BBC Panorama exerpt

Luke Nicholls

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