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Apple supplier guilty of unsafe work conditions, report finds

Findings include workers coming in contact with toxic chemicals without training or sufficient protection. Apple says it found no evidence to support the claims.

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Workers who make your iPhone 8's casing are subjected to unthinkable working conditions, according to a new report.

Ian Knighton/CNET

Apple has worked hard in recent years to clean up the plants that manufacture its products, but another supplier has been accused of subjecting its employees to poor working conditions in a new China Labour Watch report.

Workers at a Catcher Technology factory in Suqian, China making iPhone casings are discovered to be working in an unsafe environment for long hours earning low wages, according to a 62-page report published Tuesday.

The investigation, comprised of interviews with "around 50" workers and lasted from last October to January this year, found "major issues" with occupational health and safety, pollution and work schedules. The findings detailed harsh conditions that not only violated Apple's supplier responsibility standards, but also Catcher's own standards.

At the factory where workers work, standing an average of 10 hours every day for six days a week, they are required to handle toxic substances without proper training, the report said, and without provision of protective gear such as goggles and face shields. And even though they're given gloves, it's not enough to protect against the chemicals. The floor is also reportedly covered in oil, which causes workers to slip and fall. 

Workers are paid a base wage of 1,950 yuan a month, or about $303, but with workers "generally" doing six 10-hour days, many earn 4,000 yuan ($622) after overtime pay is accounted for.

Issues with living conditions are also highlighted. At the cafeteria where workers have their meals, "many instances" of diarrhea have been reported. Bathrooms lack hot water, so workers are forced to shower in cold water even during winter. They have also fallen sick because of a lack of heating and shelter from the wind in open shower areas.

In a statement issued on its website Wednesday, Catcher said it took "immediate action" and "thoroughly investigated each allegation," but found itself compliant with Apple's supplier code of conduct and said none of the claims in CLW's report are accurate.

"We are disappointed to see unfounded claims issued by some specific organisations. Catcher will keep enhancing its corporate social responsibility performance to an even higher level," it said.

Meanwhile, an Apple spokeswoman told Bloomberg, "We know our work is never done and we investigate each and every allegation that's made. We remain dedicated to doing all we can to protect the workers in our supply chain." The spokeswoman said Apple sent auditors to verify the claims, but after interviewing 150 people, found no evidence for them.

The conditions of manufacturing plants making Apple products has been an issue for the company since 2010, when a rash of suicides occurred at a plant of one of its major supply partners, Foxconn. Apple has since worked to improve conditions: In 2016, according to its Supplier Responsibility report, the company said it performed the most site audits in a calendar year at 705, and noted, among other improvements, compliance with legal working hours was 98 percent.

Chinese Labour Watch's report comes less than two months after Foxconn was found to have engaged child labour, with high school students hired as interns to help manufacture the iPhone X for 11 hours every day. Apple, following the initial reports out of Foxconn, had previously hired the Fair Labor Association to launch an investigation on working conditions at Foxconn plants. The FLA released its findings six months later, in Aug. 2012, saying Foxconn made improvements to meet local labour regulations, but still faced "challenging" times ahead.

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