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250,000 signatures for fair treatment of iWorkers

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Breakfast at Apple retail outlets in Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, London, Sydney, and Bangalore will come with a side order of protest on Thursday morning, as “concerned Apple customers” will be dropping off 250,000-signature petitions calling out Apple on supplier working practices.

The petitions ask Apple to enforce better conditions for workers among its suppliers, name and shame those who fail the assessments by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and publish a “worker protection strategy for new product releases,” when staff are most stressed by tight deadlines. Change.org provided around 195,000 of the signatures, with SumOfUs.org adding 55,000 more to hit the media-friendly quarter million mark.

“I have been a lifelong Apple customer and was shocked to learn of the abusive working conditions in many of Apple’s supplier factories,” said Mark Shields, who launched the campaign on Change.org, in an email to El Reg. “At Foxconn, one of Apple’s biggest manufacturers, there is a history of suicides, abusive working conditions, and almost no pay. These working conditions are appalling, especially for Apple.”

The event is similar to others in recent months, as concerns have grown among users over the possibility that their shiny iProducts might be washed with the tears of the enslaved. A steady drip of explosions, child labor, poisoning, strikes and suicides from Apple’s third party suppliers – with Foxconn the most visible target – led to the ethical promises made by Cook last month.

Apple says that is has had a monitoring systems in place for years and publishes its results on the FLA websites. Its 2012 Progress Report records 229 plant inspections, including 14 specialized environmental spot-checks, and almost 75 per cent passed muster. Working hours and wages were the chief problems, but 97 per cent of plants reported no child labor and 95 per cent had freedom of assembly.

As anyone who has been there will tell you, working conditions in the industrial sector of China are bad by modern Western standards, and very few companies are doing anything about it. In Apple’s 2011 Progress Report the company said that 40 per cent of the factories it inspected had never had a visit from a supplier for the purpose before. Almost all technology companies have operations in China, and if a similar lens were turned on Dell, HP or Acer it’s highly likely they might not score particularly well in some areas either, despite having their own policies on the matter.

Industrial revolutions are always messy however. In the Sheffield, arguably the birthplace of the UK’s industrialization, Engels reported that the average age of death for a knife grinder was barely 35. The infamous incineration of 146 female garment workers at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory was just one of a string of similar cases in America’s manufacturing boom and China is no different. One reason why the first mass trade unions were formed in the Industrial era was that the working conditions were so appalling.

Some have called for Apple to bring out an ethically-produced line of products, or use some if its immense cash pile to help. Analysts estimate the manufacturing costs are $8 for an iPhone4s. Double that, use the money to increase wages and incentivize better working practices, allow Cupertino its customary mark up and you’re only looking at a $20 additional charge for peace of mind. But Apple’s highly unlikely to try it, since by inference this makes the rest of the product line, and existing users, look like they support worker abuse.

One sign of hope is the speed of change. It took over a century for British workers to get even moderately safe working conditions for many jobs, and the US’s own rather checkered history in the area of workers’ rights lasted nearly as long. Here’s hoping the Middle Kingdom manages things faster, but some judicious pressure from big firms for change would certainly help. ®

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