The truth behind Apple’s supplier report

Since Apple released their 2013 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report in January, everyone has had a bit of time to inspect it. As always, Apple reports progress and displays compliance figures of eighty or ninety percent for some hot issues, such as working hours and freedom of association.

Also, Faire Computer notes that one remarkable thing Apple has managed is the paying back of illegal fees that were raised by recruiting agencies to migrant workers.

However, the Good Electronics Network have published an analysis in response to the supplier report that shows how white-washed the high compliance figures published by Apple are.

They specifically criticise three areas: freedom of association, hours of work, and abuse of student internships.

With regards to freedom of association, they point out that basically all Apple demands of its suppliers is that they comply with the laws regarding freedom of association in the supplier’s country. What they don’t say is that many of the countries of production have completely inadequate laws regarding this matter. In fact, weak laws regarding freedom of association are a major attraction for foreign investment, and have often been established by the governments especially for this purpose.

I recently wrote about Malaysia, which is one example of this. Another example is China: There are no independent labour unions; all unions are required to be a member of the AFCTU, a central, party-led organisation of labour unions. In addition, key members of the unions are generally placed by the company’s management. So trade unions in China do not represent the labourers’ interests, but the company’s and the state’s – where the state, of course, has an overriding interest in the economic well-being of the company.

So what Apple really demands of its suppliers is that they conform to a corrupt and unworkable legal system that is geared towards worker exploitation. If it wanted to make a difference, it would have to impose additional requirements; however, then it would have to report much, much lower compliance figures.

Concerning working hours, Apple claims that it has been largely able to push working hours below 60 hours a week (note that regular 60-hour weeks are still illegal even in China). But it is easy to see that working hours peak whenever new Apple products are released (witness the iPhone 5 launch in September 2012 in the graph). Apple’s gigantic marketing machine thus still places a burden on its labour force: Production quotas and mandatory overtime go up whenever an Apple product is brought to the market.

Another point of criticism voiced by Good Electronics is the ongoing abuse of student workers, who are forced to work at factories by their schools (even if their subject of study is not related to the work at all), and receive even lower pay than regular workers. Apple promised to look into this in 2013.

We should note that Apple is still far ahead of most other brand electronics companies with regards to transparency: most don’t have this sort of supplier report. If other companies decline to provide this kind of report, we have to assume that they would score lower grades even under the lax criteria applied by Apple.

But Apple’s report also makes it abundantly clear that a lot of the causes for the ongoing mistreatment of workers at Apple’s factories originate from Apple itself. They are the result of cost and time pressure that Apple passes down to its suppliers. If Apple spent just a little more on its manufacturing, for instance, this would allow the workers’ wages to rise substantially without noticeably increasing the cost of Apple products, so workers could get by without working twelve hours a day.

Edit: If you want to get a feeling for how wide Apple’s supplier network is, have a look at this map of suppliers, which has been created based on the supplier list published by Apple.

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