Apple suppliers: Child labor, bribery, suicides

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During 2010, Apple audited the facilities and management practices of 127 of its worldwide suppliers, and found instances of underage labor, unsafe working conditions, inadequate safety devices, lack of first-aid supplies, improper handling of hazardous chemicals, excessive recruitment fees, and more. Much more.

And if Apple's Supplier Responsibility: 2011 Progress Report, released Monday, is to believed, Cupertino's employee-welfare auditors are kicking some serious regulatory butt.

For example, the report asserts, Apple terminated business with one facility at which management "presented falsified payroll records and provided misleading interview answers to Apple's audit team," and with another at which a facility manager "offered cash to Apple's third-party auditors, asking them to reduce the number of audit findings."

Apple's team discovered 10 facilities that hired a total of 91 underage workers. (Although the report doesn't specify where the offending facilities were located, 16 is the legal working age in China). One of those offending facilities had hired a total of 42 child laborers. "We determined management had chosen to overlook the issue and was not committed to addressing the problem," the report says of that facility, adding: "Apple has terminated business with the facility."

In other cases, Apple declined to drop the axe, and instead gave the companies another chance. For example, at one "A facility manager assembled workers and told them to provide false wage payment information to Apple auditors." That company was merely required to produce the actual records and to better train its management staff – but Apple will "will return for a full reaudit in 2011."

The report devotes one section to the use of the dangerous chemical n-hexane, which can cause serious health problems if used in an unventilated workspace. "In 2010," the report reads, "we learned that 137 workers at the Suzhou facility of Wintek, one of Apple's suppliers, had suffered adverse health effects following exposure to n-hexane, a chemical in cleaning agents used in some manufacturing processes."

Apple reports that it instructed Wintek to stop using n-hexane, and to fix their insufficient ventilation system, which had contributed to the problem. "Since these changes," the report contends, "no new workers have suffered difficulties from chemical exposure."

A Reg report of last October about a logo factory that also sickened workers with n-hexane was confirmed by Apple's audit team: "We are aware of another reported incident involving n-hexane," the report reads. "Apple learned that a logo supplier and its subcontractor were using the chemical. When we investigated, we found that the subcontractor had been shut down by local officials."

Another section of the report delves into the spate of suicides and reports of maltreatment at Foxconn's giant assembly plant in Shenzhen, China. In June 2010, Apple COO and Steve Jobs–stand-in Tim Cook met with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou – a meeting the resulted in Apple commissioning a team of suicide-prevention experts to "conduct a deeper investigation into the suicides, evaluate Foxconn’s response, and recommend strategies for supporting workers' mental health in the future."

During July, that team independently surveyed 1,000 Foxconn employees, interviewed some workers "face to face", met with managers, and "evaluated working and living conditions firsthand." In August, the team "commended" Foxconn for such improvements as hiring psychological counselors, establishing a 24/7 care center, and "even attaching large nets to the factory buildings to prevent impulsive suicides." Foxconn's actions, the report concludes, "definitely saved lives."

Finally, the report details how Apple is working with the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GESI) and the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) to audit what they refer to as conflict-free sourcing of extractives, namely "The mining of columbite-tantalite, cassiterite, wolframite, and gold – which are refined into tantalum (Ta), tin (Sn), tungsten (W), and gold (Au), respectively – [that] is believed to fuel political strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring regions."

GESI and EICC – which counts not only Apple and Foxconn among its members, but also Intel, IBM, Oracle, AMD, and many others – have launched an effort to validate what they identify as "conflict-free smelters" of these extractives. "As the EICC/GeSI Extractives Workgroup completes smelter audits," the report promises, "Apple will require our suppliers to source only from approved conflict-free smelters, and we will incorporate source validation into our regular audits."

The report, of course, paints Apple as a comprehensively proactive defender of workers' rights, and should be read as what it is: corporate self-promotion. However, the depth of detail in the 2011 Progress Report – and such nuggets as "Of the suppliers Apple audited in 2010, more than 40 percent stated that Apple was the first company ever to have audited their facility for social responsibility compliance" – gives even the hardened cynics here at Vulture Annex cause for pause.

From what we read in Apple's report, it's a jungle out there. And Cupertino is to be commended for hacking away at it, even if motivated by the desire to burnish their reputation. ®

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