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Apple 'offended' by BBC claim that factories violate labor rights

An executive sends a memo to employees to dismiss BBC reporting that claims Chinese workers at an Apple supplier continue to be treated poorly.

A Pegatron iPhone factory in Shanghai. Jay Greene/CNET

Apple is taking issue -- at least internally -- with BBC claims that the iPhone maker isn't doing enough to improve working conditions in Chinese factories.

The BBC's "Panorama" show that aired earlier this week sent undercover reporters to factories outside of Shanghai that are used to manufacture iPhones and iPads. The reporters concluded that the factories, owned by Apple supplier Pegatron, were in violation of standard labor rights, including overworking employees and not allowing them to take time off.

Jeff Williams, Apple senior vice president of operations, apparently followed the story with a memo issued to at least UK employees, saying that he and CEO Tim Cook were "deeply offended" by the claims, according to The Telegraph, which obtained a copy of the alleged document. Williams added the "Panorama" report "implied that Apple isn't improving working conditions" and said this couldn't "be further from the truth."

Apple's manufacturing partners have been under scrutiny after issues were uncovered in factories several years ago, including underage labor, unsafe working conditions and sub-standard pay.

Apple responded to the accusations at that time by asking the Fair Labor Association, an independent group, to investigate the companies and supply facilities. After the investigation found problems, Apple pledged to ensure that its suppliers are in alignment with global working standards.

Over the last few years, Apple has been providing what it calls a "Progress Report" on the state of working conditions across its facilities around the world. The company also has a "Supplier Responsibility" page on its website that outlines how it uses workers' rights training and consistent oversight to ensure its supplier partners are acting within legal constraints.

One of the concerns highlighted in the "Panorama" report was that Apple's supplier facilities are overworking employees. By contrast, Apple's website displays ongoing audit results showing that work-hour compliance -- which requires that employees work no more than 60 hours per week -- was above 85 percent in October, the last-reported period.

The company's 2014 Progress Report notes that Apple trained 1.5 million supply workers on their rights in 2013, adding that it conducted 451 audits in its supply chain that covered nearly 1.5 million workers producing Apple devices. According to the letter issued by Williams, Apple completed 630 audits in its supply chain in 2014.

Still, the claims made against Apple have ruffled the company's feathers. "Panorama" reporters argued that Apple's efforts toward improving working conditions could be out of step with its public comments and that working conditions within Apple supplier facilities are not improving.

"I will not dive into every issue raised by Panorama in this note, but you can rest assured that we take all allegations seriously, and we investigate every claim," Williams wrote, according to the alleged memo. "We know there are a lot of issues out there, and our work is never done. We will not rest until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve."

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment and has so far not publicly commented on the "Panorama" report.