Labor activists call on Apple to stop squeezing suppliers

Groups critical of Apple and its manufacturing partner Foxconn say Apple can afford to pay suppliers more. That, in turn, could lead to improved working conditions at factories in China.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
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Debby Chan, project officer at Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, speaks at an Economic Policy Institute panel in Washington about Foxconn's China factories. Jay Greene/CNET

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A panel of labor activists called on Apple today to increase the amount it pays for devices from suppliers such as Foxconn in order to improve working conditions for employees that make the gadgets.

Apple has come under intense fire for the excessive overtime and low wages of workers at Foxconn's Chinese factories that make its popular iPhones and iPads. One reason is that Apple presses suppliers such as Foxconn to meet tight production deadlines and do so on razor-thin margins.

"It does not encourage the factories to pay decent wages," said Debby Chan, project officer of Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Hong Kong-based watchdog group that's focused on workplace rights at Foxconn. "The profit margins of Apple keep rising. Apple has the capacity to increase the unit prices" it pays suppliers.

Her comments came during a panel, sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute here, looking into labor practices at Foxconn factories that produce Apple products. The panelists all said that Apple shouldn't hide behind Foxconn and be absolved of responsibility.

"If we want any change at supplier factories, Apple has to change first," said Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, a New York-based monitor of working conditions in China. "Apple has the money to do so. It has the capacity to make the changes. Apple has to take the lead."

Apple didn't immediately reply to a request for a response. The company has said that it's working "to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple's supply chain a model for the industry."

Last month, the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group of which Apple is a part, released an audit of three Foxconn factories in China that produce Apple products. It found widespread problems including excessive overtime and wages that don't meet workers' basic needs.

While the audit found disturbing problems, they're not particularly new, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an advocacy group that monitors working conditions at factories around the world. In fact, Apple has documented many of the same issues around excessive overtime since 2006, saying then that it would hold suppliers accountable. But Apple continues to work with Foxconn.

"The absence of accountability is not a positive sign," Nova said.

And yet Nova sees some reason to believe meaningful change will come. The intense spotlight on the working conditions in China has already pushed Apple to address the issue, he said. And it will only continue to do so as long as that pressure is maintained.

"Apple is about as image-driven a company as there is," Nova said. "The company will move only as far as it believes is in its interest to move."