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The Apple way to make products: a response to Apple’s 10th ‘supplier responsibility progress report’

Apple is among the world’s largest companies and has a supply chain to match, but does its claim to be strict on supplier labour standards hold water?

iphonedigital/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

Apple released its 10th Supplier Responsibility Progress Report this March. “There’s a right way to make products”, Apple proclaims. “It starts with the rights of the people who make them.”1 Currently Apple has 346 suppliers in China alone, more than those in Japan (126), the United States (69), Taiwan (41), Korea (28), Malaysia (23), Thailand (19), the Philippines (19), and Vietnam (18) put together2. Are Chinese workers enjoying their rights in Apple’s supply chain? What responsibility does Apple have to the Chinese workers who make its products?

Apple boasts that its supplier code is “one of the strictest in the industry”3. In 2015, Apple conducted 640 audits against its own standards, far surpassing the 39 audits it conducted in 20074. It reported that 97% of its audited suppliers in 25 countries achieved compliance with its requirements of a “60-hour maximum workweek”5. In the words of Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer reporting to company boss Tim Cook, the nearly 100% compliance with working hours is “a number that is virtually unheard of in our industry”6.

But let us explain clearly that China’s own legal standards are higher than Apple’s requirements. Chinese law stipulates a “40-hour regular workweek”7, which can be extended by a maximum of three hours a day or 36 hours a month, and only when workers consent8. This translates to a maximum working week of no longer than 55 hours. Yet Apple is boasting that it has a maximum of 60?

Worse still, evidence suggests that many workers work far more than Apple’s 60 hours a week. A survey carried out by China Labor Watch in October 2015 showed that 71% of the more than 1,000 workers sampled at Pegatron Shanghai, one of Apple’s major suppliers, worked more than 60 hours during any given week9. While workers at Foxconn reported that, in the face of Apple deadlines, such overtime work was often compulsory.

Furthermore, under pressure from Apple and other brands, some of Apple’s suppliers have turned to the fast growing Chinese “student labour market” as a means to lower their production costs while enhancing labour flexibility and increasing profits. Wistron, for example, recruited 2,000-3,000 “student interns” from four schools during summer 201510. Interviews with those interns revealed that they were paid well below the local minimum wage and required to work the same 12-hour shift as ordinary workers, including at night. Yet according to Chinese law, not only must interns work no more than eight hours per shift11, but all of their training has to take place during the day in order to ensure their safety, physical and mental health12.

In response to a stream of public criticism over this issue between 2013 and 2016, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (an industry association of over 100 member companies including Apple) joined forces with Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program (REAP) in an attempt to “protect student workers” and “raise the quality of vocational education” in China13. The brands and manufacturers all reiterated that interns should have the right to choose where they work and when to resign14. But the evidence clearly shows that these teenagers are still forced to do assembly work and are at risk of not graduating if they refuse to their year-long internship. This is not free labour; nor is it an internship.

Foxconn workers wear t-shirts with an "I Love Foxconn" slogan during a rally to raise morale at the heavily regimented factories inside the Foxconn plant in Guangdong province on 18 August 2010. Kin Cheung/Press Association Images, all rights reserved.

Many workers are subjected to these kinds of unjust, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions. And often they express their discontent in slowdowns, strikes, riots, demonstrations, protests, or even suicides. But few have access to effective workplace-based grievance mechanisms, or genuine worker representation. The union for Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier company, has over a million members, but it has been chaired since 2007 by the special assistant to Terry Gou, Foxconn’s CEO. Apple’s claim that its suppliers buy in to “freedom of association and collective bargaining” therefore seems like little more than a sham15.

Another way: extending responsibility for worker rights

The system of corporate self-regulation or business ethics has severe limits when it comes to raising labour standards. In our view, responsibility for protecting workers’ rights in the transnational supply chain lies with governments, corporations, unions, and global consumers. Public sector consumers, in particular, can play a key role. Under the latest UK Higher Education Framework Agreement for Apple products, the universities affiliated to the independent monitoring organisation Electronics Watch will require their contractors to respect domestic and international labour standards in Apple’s supplier factories.

Specifically, university contractors will disclose a full list of factories that are responsible for the final assembly and the making of components. They will also set the terms under which the factories can comply with the high standards on wages, working hours, and occupational health and safety. Finally, as major purchasers of computers and other products, they will use their leverage with Apple to correct breaches of labour standards and compensate workers for any harm as a result of breaches. This, at the very least, is a start.

Apple is one of the most popular brands for individual and institutional consumers. It is time for universities and other public bodies to take their responsibilities seriously and demand stronger labour compliance and reporting standards to protect workers’ rights.

  1. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, p. 2. ↩︎
  2. Apple, 2016, Our Global Supplier Facilities (accessed online on 12 April 2016). ↩︎
  3. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, p. 5. ↩︎
  4. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, p. 7. ↩︎
  5. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, pp. 12-13. ↩︎
  6. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, p. 4. ↩︎
  7. State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 1995, Decision of the State Council to Amend the “Regulations of the State Council on the Hours of Work of Employees,” article 3 (in Chinese). ↩︎
  8. Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China, 1994, article 41 (in Chinese). ↩︎
  9. China Labor Watch, 2016, Study Casts Doubts on Apple’s Ethical Standards, p. 1. ↩︎
  10. Danwatch, 2015, Servants of Servers: Rights Violations and Forced Labour in the Supply Chain of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) Equipment in European Universities, p. 8. ↩︎
  11. Ministries of Education and Finance of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, The Administrative Measures for Internships at Secondary Vocational Schools, article 5 (in Chinese); Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, 2010, The Circular on “Further Improving the Work of Secondary Vocational School Student Internship Regarding Skilled Labor Shortage of Enterprises,” clause 4 (in Chinese). ↩︎
  12. Law on Protection of Minors of the People’s Republic of China, 2013, article 20 (in Chinese). ↩︎
  13. Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program (REAP), 2015, Creating and Evaluating a Credentialing System for Vocational Schools in China: Phase 2 Final Report, pp. 3-4. ↩︎
  14. Danwatch, 2015, Statements from HP, Dell, Lenovo and Wistron, pp. 1-6. ↩︎
  15. Apple, 2016, Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, p. 28. ↩︎
About the authors

Jenny Chan is Lecturer in Sociology and Junior Research Fellow of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford. She is co-author of ‘Dying for an iPhone’ (forthcoming) with Ngai Pun and Mark Selden.

Olga Martin-Ortega is Reader in Public International Law at the University of Greenwich, and leads the Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group and the Electronics Hub of the International Learning Lab on Public Procurement and Human Rights.

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