Apple report reveals grim truths behind gadgets

Progress report on its suppliers' practices marks first time Apple acknowledges worker poisonings. Also, many suppliers fail to comply with child-labor, other guidelines.

Apple's just-released progress report on the labor-related practices of its overseas parts suppliers reveals grim truths behind the making of such popular gadgets as the iPad and iPhone--including worker poisonings, child labor violations, and 60-plus-hour work weeks.

An image from Apple's Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report.
An image from Apple's Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report. Apple

The Supplier Responsibility 2011 Progress Report, released just weeks after Apple logged record profits of $6 billion , marks the first time the company has officially acknowledged that 137 workers "suffered adverse health effects" at Wintek's Suzhou factory in China (which supplies parts to Apple and Nokia) because of exposure to n-hexane, a toxic chemical in cleaning agents.

A report last year in the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper said at least 62 Suzhou workers had been hospitalized, while Wintek claimed that a factory death was the result of a heart attack, not n-hexane exposure. At that time, Nokia issued a statement denying that n-hexane was used on its production lines, while Apple declined to comment at all. (In its report, Apple now blames a reconfiguration of Wintek's operations that failed to include changing the factory's ventilation system.)

"Apple considers this series of incidents to be a core violation for worker endangerment," the report, available online, reads. "We required Wintek to stop using n-hexane and to provide evidence that they had removed the chemical from their production lines. In addition, Apple required them to fix their ventilation system. Since these changes, no new workers have suffered difficulties from chemical exposure."

Long-term, high-level exposure to n-hexane can damage the peripheral nervous system and eventually the spinal cord, leading to weak and atrophied muscles, male infertility, and even paralysis. The chemical is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency owing not only to potential carcinogenic properties but also to environmental concerns. Apple says it will conduct a total re-audit of Wintek's facility in 2011.

The Apple report also reveals that only 32 percent of audited facilities comply with the company's maximum 60-hour, 6-day work week; in 2009, compliance was at 46 percent. In the U.S., 60-hour work weeks were deemed excessive in the 1880s, when factory workers pushed for 8-hour work days, according to a Business Week report. More recently, Apple has called 60-plus-hour work weeks "excessive" but 60-hour work weeks "normal," according to this 2006 BBC report, while The New York Times found in 2007 that factories in China supplying corporations such as Wal-Mart, Disney, and Dell were forcing employees to work 16-hour days on fast-moving assembly lines.

Meanwhile, Apple's report finds that only 57 percent of facilities complied with Apple's code on preventing working injuries, and less than 70 percent met standards on air emissions; environmental permits and reporting; and managing hazardous substances. The report also acknowledges finding 91 children working at 10 facilities, though the nearly nine-fold jump from the previous year's findings of 11 children at 3 workplaces could be due to more robust facilities auditing. (After auditing 102 facilities in 2009, Apple audited 127 in 2010, many for the first time.)

Apple rather vaguely describes how it is addressing these issues, saying with regard to n-hexane that it is working to improve "poor management systems for Environmental Health and Safety." As for child labor, Apple says it has "required the suppliers to support the young workers' return to school and to improve their management systems--such as labor recruitment practices and age-verification procedures--to prevent recurrences."

And finally, Apple reports that it is "disturbed and deeply saddened" by the 13 suicides or attempted suicides at Foxconn Technology's Shenzhen factory over the course of five months. The first suicide involved a man who worked 286 hours the month prior, including 112 overtime hours (three times the legal limit), for about $1 an hour (including the higher overtime pay). That amounted to less than $300 over the course of the month--not quite enough to buy a 32GB iPhone 4. (Americans find the iPhone more affordable; within three days of launching the iPhone 4, Apple sold 1.7 million .) Foxconn, for its part, has since increased factory wages by 30 percent .

According to the report, after Apple COO Tim Cook and other executives traveled to the factory in June 2010, Apple asked for an independent review of conditions by suicide prevention experts. By August, Foxconn had hired psychological counselors, set up a 24-hour care center, and (rather morbidly) affixed large nets to the buildings to "prevent impulsive suicides."

 

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