Report Raises Questions About Apple’s Role in Worker Safety

Chinese Environmental groups this week released a report (PDF) criticizing Apple for poor health and safety standards and a lack of environmental responsibility at the factories of some of its suppliers throughout the country. But just how culpable really is the Mac maker?

Dubbed “The Other Side of Apple,” the report is the product of a consortium of 36 environmental groups including China’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA) and lists what it claims are environmental and worker-safety violations committed by component suppliers working for multinational corporations including Apple, Toshiba and HP(s hpq). The report claims that Apple’s suppliers are the worst offenders, responsible for the poisoning of “dozens” of factory workers exposed to hazardous chemicals.

The timing of the report — published in the same week that Apple announced record-breaking quarterly earnings — seems intentional, given the following excerpt from the report;

While Apple’s been busy updating their sales records, its employees have been enduring poisonous chemicals, with their rights and dignity being seriously trespassed on and the surrounding areas and environment being polluted by dirty water and emissions.

The IPEA’s spokesman Ma Jun spoke with Reuters yesterday, expressing frustration with Apple’s lack of transparency and the company’s silence in the face of the report’s findings;

Apple only care about the price and quality of their products and not the environmental and social responsibility issues. In some ways they drive the suppliers to cut corners to win their contracts. Apple’s lack of responsiveness eventually made us quite shocked. It’s the whole complacency that it doesn’t have to be accountable to the NGOs, to the communities, even to the poisoned workers.

Apple spokeswoman Carolyn Wu responded with a brief statement, saying, “Apple is committed to ensuring the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply base. Our supplier responsibility reports document the progress of our extensive auditing programme since 2006.”

So on the one hand we have an assembly of NGO’s accusing Apple of a lack of corporate oversight and social responsibility, and on the other we have Apple — as tight-lipped as ever. As is usually the case, the real story lies somewhere in between.

Standards Strictly Enforced

The consortium’s report is in Chinese, so I can’t examine the data for myself. We can only take on face value the claim that ‘dozens’ of workers have been poisoned while manufacturing components destined for Apple products. But should Apple be held accountable for its supplier’s health, safety and environmental protection policies?

Apple does already have a strict Code of Conduct (PDF) to which its suppliers must adhere. Apple enforces the Code with regular audits, described in detail in their 2010 Supplier Responsibility Report (PDF). It’s pretty dry reading, but here’s a succint excerpt;

We drive compliance with the Code through a rigorous monitoring program, including factory audits, corrective action plans, and verification measures. Apple audits all final assembly manufacturers every year, regardless of their location and past audit performance.

OK fair enough — Apple keeps a close eye on ‘final assembly’ manufacturers. That seems reasonable, given that it’s at these factories where components are brought together at one end and finished Apple products come rolling off a conveyor belt at the other. Since the final product is a MacBook or an iPad, any right minded person would conclude that Apple should take responsibility for matters of environmental protection and worker safety at these places.

But does this mean Apple pays no attention to early stage component suppliers? Not at all. The following also comes from the 2010 Supplier Responsibility Report (it’s more execu-speak, but bear with me);

We select component and nonproduction suppliers for audits based on risk factors, such as the prevailing conditions in the country where a supplier facility is located and the supplier’s past audit performance — enabling us to focus our efforts where we can have the greatest impact.

We continue to extend our compliance-monitoring program by auditing more and more suppliers across our supply base.

Apple takes its responsibilities seriously, and makes an effort to publicly report the findings of its audits. What’s more, Apple doesn’t claim to have a perfect record, but its reports show a sustained, annual increase in the breadth and depth of its supplier audits, and a steady improvement in audit results. Take a look for yourself and decide whether this is the behaviour of a company guilty of a serious lack of corporate oversight in China today.


It’s easy to criticize multinational corporations for a perceived lack of social and environmental responsibility; much-publicized controversies surrounding major brands like Nestlé and Nike (s nke) have planted the seeds of mistrust in the minds of consumers. We often assume most multinationals are planet-killing, child-labor-employing soulless monsters, at least to some degree.

Sometimes that’s a fair assumption, but not always. Let’s exercise a measure of rational thinking before we start condemning Apple for neglecting its duty of care to the environment and workforce. In fact, in recent years, Apple’s efforts in these areas have set new standards in the consumer electronics industry, and it still does much more than is required by law and regulation.

And what of this report? Apple simply presents itself as a choice target and one that has the most power to effect change. By focusing on Apple and not just the companies it does business with, the report’s authors are able to draw the collective attention of the Western media — which is always hunting for anything Apple-flavoured.

And as is often the case, timing is everything for this story; China is undergoing a wave of reforms set to improve working conditions and worker’s rights, but political support for those reforms has traditionally been weak or ineffectual. The collective might of politically and economically influential multinationals like Apple and HP — pushed into action by bad PR — seems too good an opportunity to miss.

What do you make of this? Are these violations of worker safety a problem for Apple to solve? Or is this little more than canny political wrangling from a consortium of NGO’s? Corporate evil-doing, or sound public opinion manipulation? Sound-off in the comments below.

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