Guest Column: Apple should lead the way to better work standards

Danielle Faipler

Last May, an Apple factory in Chengdu, China exploded due to unsafe working conditions and hazardous materials. There were two blasts that year; four workers were killed and 77 were injured.

Media attention to the Foxconn suicides also heightened concern for supplier factory workers.

In 2010, four Foxconn workers committed suicide and 14 workers attempted suicide. A study in BMC Public Health found strong evidence supporting the idea that the suicides were related to poor factory conditions.

The pressure to develop new technologies and keep costs low has played a major part in the mistreatment of overseas workers. A human life is not worth a cellphone, no matter how cheap the labor. Companies have obligations to establish fair wages, and inform workers of their rights even if the factory is located outside the U.S.

Companies are afraid big changes in policy will inhibit the production and innovation of new products, so they cut production costs at the workers expense. Apple has achieved the status as an icon and innovator by producing brilliant technologies other companies try to imitate, and it needs to lead other companies to establish a higher production standard.

Overseas, workers at Taiwan-based company Foxconn revealed in interviews that they stand for most of their shift with little or no breaks. Furthermore, an article in USA Today reported that workers must produce 4,000 computers per shift, and company-provided residence halls are cramped with 20 workers living in a three-bedroom apartment.

Apple has started taking the initiative to create a better environment for workers. In 2005, executives met to draft the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct. Since then, the company has audited more than 300 factories, finding violations in almost half of them.

Violations included extended overtime, a six-day work week, employment of underaged workers and falsified records.

Apple stated in its policy that all discovered labor violations are attended to immediately. When an audit uncovers a violation, the supplier has 90 days to make changes to meet the code of conduct. If the supplier is unwilling to make these changes, then Apple will end the partnership.

The policy seems to be working. According to the 2011 Apple progress report, employees are trained to understand their rights, the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct and employment laws. Factories are also trained how to manage “third-party recruiters” and to meet environmental standards.

Apple partnered with Verite and the Fair Labor Association to assess the effectiveness of the training programs. The report found the programs raised workers’ understanding and comprehension of their rights.

However, there have still been reports that some suppliers are not meeting the requirements.

It is essential for Apple to keep making these positive changes because the company will influence how other companies treat workers and will create a higher standard to improve conditions in China. American-based companies in China generate more revenue than the agriculture industry; however, they receive less than 2 percent of the profit from producing Apple products — and it is unacceptable.

In an article in The Los Angeles Times, Apple chief executive Tim Cook said the company “will continue to dig deeper, and we will undoubtedly find more issues … what we will not do, and never have done, is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain. On this you have my word.”

Apple needs to keep this promise, and push its big suppliers like Foxconn to make changes and create higher standards for overseas labor.

Apple is a strong brand, and it should use its reputation to improve labor laws across the ocean.

The Daily Athenaeum, West Virginia U. via UWIRE