Apple CEO defends fixes to suppliers' working conditions
Underage labor 'abhorrent', overtime abuse 'endemic'
CEO Tim Cook wants you to know – really wants you to know – that despite what you may have heard, Apple takes working conditions at its Asian contract manufacturers quite seriously and is working to improve them.
"No one in our industry is doing more to improving working conditions than Apple," Cook told investors and analysts at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.
To be frank – knowing how wretched the conditions are for many workers in Chinese factories churning out consumer electronics geegaws – being better than other tech firms is not a particularly high bar over which to hurdle.
That said, Cook did make a fair – if understandably self-serving and not always fully accurate – case, pointing to Apple's supplier auditing efforts to bolster his claims. "We are constantly auditing facilities, going deep into the supply chain, looking for problems, finding problems, and fixing problems," he said.
According to Cook, when Apple's auditors find problems in the supply chain, "They stay with them until they fix them." From his point of view, Apple staffers working on fixing such problems are "truly a model for the industry."
One problem that he identified is underage labor, which he described as "abhorrent" but "extremely rare" in Apple's supply chain. "Our top priority is to eliminate it entirely," Cook said, claiming that it has now been eradicated in final-assembly plants, such as those run by Foxconn, but that it still exists to some degree further down the supply chain.
He also discussed Apple's efforts to eliminate excessive overtime, a problem he called "endemic to our industry." Apple's suppliers code of conduct, he said, has a cap of 60 hours per week.
Unfortunately, Cook was fudging a bit when he made that claim. In fact, the code's Working Hours section actually reads: "Except in emergency or unusual situations, a work week shall be restricted to 60 hours, including overtime," with no definition of exactly what "emergency or unusual situations" might mean.
It should be noted, however – to Apple's credit – that the code also requires that "All overtime shall be voluntary." An admirable inclusion, but a less-than-scrupulous supervisor might easily create conditions in which voluntary refusal to accept overtime might result in tough times for a worker.
Cook did admit that the code's overtime rules are often flouted, and that Apple has "consitently found violations to this code." In response to these violations, he said, Apple has begun to "manage working hours on a very micro basis."
As part of this micro focus, Cook said, this January Apple collected weekly hours-worked info on over one-half million workers throughout the supply chain, and discovered that the compliance rate stood at 84 per cent.
Now, whether you call that a high compliance rate or a low one depends upon your frame of reference – or, for that matter, upon your managerial level, should you happen to be employed at a Chinese factory – but from Cook's point of view, that level of compliance is "significantly improved from the past – but we can do better."
One other example Cook gave of what Apple is doing for its contract employees is its Supplier Employee Education and Development (SEED) program. "We provide free classes in many of the locations in our supply chain," he said, "and we partner with local colleges to provide courses like English, and entrepreneurship, and computer skills, and the like," he said.
According to Cook, over 60,000 employees in Apple's supply chain have taken part in such classes. "If you could take all these employees and move them to one location," he said, "it would be a campus population larger than Arizona State," which he identified as the largest public university in the US.
Well, Arizona State actually has over 72,000 students – but maybe Cook was talking only about the main campus in Tempe, which has just under 60,000.
We'll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, but we'll keep an eye on the compliance figures Apple uncovers in its overtime audits – Cook says they'll be published monthly on Apple's website. ®
As is becoming a tradition whenever an Apple exec speaks with investors, the topic of Cupertino's huge and growing hoard of cash was raised. Cook, as has also become traditional, declined to give any specific plans on what the company will do with its current $97.6bn pile, but he did rule out one possibility. "We're not going to go have a toga party," he promised.
Can't fix what isn't broken
How can they fix working conditions if they're already perfectly fine, which is what they said when workers started killing themselves?
To fix something is an acknowledgement it was broken, which means they chose to use those factories knowing the human cost of cheap manufacture, which means their consumers don't care.
This goes way beyond Apple. At the moment it's the norm to create a company in the west and then outsource the labour to cheap workers living in third world conditions. Common sense tells you the only reason a warm coat costs £8 from a certain UK clothes retailer, despite being shipped from the other side of the world, is because it was made in sweat shops. Everyone buying one knows that deep down, and what it all means to the people working there. Yes, you can argue that working in a sweat shop is better than not working at all, but that's to moral high ground what standing on a chair in a Tsunami is.
Centuries ago, it must have seemed just as much the norm to keep slaves and have them work your plantation, and we all know what the legacy of that is. Back then, people probably also said that it's better for these people to be slaves and get fed than have nothing at all and starve, and to suggest that one day their descendants would hold a grudge over the matter, causing riots and deep social problems, would sound laughable.
Is it really unlikely that in another few hundred years, far-eastern people with a much higher standard of living will collectively hold a grudge against the west for what it did to their ancestors? We live in cities with racial divides and the legacy of slavery and colonialism. Is it hard to imagine the potential for a situation like this but on a global/regional level existing one day?
If you ever feel that 21st century western countries are picking up the tab for the industrial revolution, what's the tab likely to be for consumerism when it the charlady of time brings it to us at the end of the night?
If you don't like Chinese labour practices, boycott IT kit made in China
Which is almost all of it.
You could go further, and buy only IT kit made under humane and ethical conditions. Which is almost none of it.
Or, you could:
- become an activist or donor to try and address the issue
- shut up and carry on as normal
- post snarky comments online, which affect nothing, but will make you feel big and clever
Me - sorry factory workers, but I'm going to shut up and carry on as normal
Maybe, just a suggestion here, file more lawsuits to share the wealth with the lawyers? I mean who's going to think of them when they are down on their luck and are forced to drive a ferrari instead of the bugatti veyron to work? Just a suggestion.
But the NY Times article had Apple insisting on overtime
But the NY Times article had Apple insisting on overtime, insisting that workers be kept in dorms so they could be woken up in the middle of the night to make changes.
The example they gave was of the last minute change of the iPhone screen to tempered glass where the new material arrived late at night and the workers had to be unexpectedly awakened to produce the initial phones by morning.
"The truth is that Chinese workers are much better off in what you call "sweatshops" than they have been as rural subsistence farmers on slightly more than a beach towel of land"
You're only repeating the obvious and flawed argument I already gave in my post. It doesn't matter if these Chinese workers are better off or not. History will simply record how the west exploited them whilst they lived in terrible conditions, just as it has with slavery.
And you're treating 'better' like it's a benchmark test. Somehow I doubt you yourself would be happy to live the lifestyle you're describing as "much better off". If you were dropped into China to live the rest of your life that way, you'd probably top yourself too.
The fact that European countries went to Africa and found an already established slavery market of Africans selling Africans to Africans, and then simply jumped on the bandwagon - or that slavery in Africa and the middle east still goes on is neither here nor there. It isn't a logical argument that can be won by illustrating semantics. The bottom line is that slavery helped make the industrial revolution economically viable, and the legacy of that is what's to blame for so many problems.
It's happening again, it's just that people can't see it. One day, Chinese people won't care whether their ancestors were better off in sweat shops or whether it was Chinese factories offering their cheap labour. All they'll know is that the west enjoyed plasma TVs, broadband, laptops, iPads and cheap clothes whilst their poor ancestors who made them had none of that, died worn out at a relatively young age, or even committed suicide because of the stress of it. Try telling the families of those men that they're better off that way.