In a comprehensive piece of reporting, The New York Times has laid out a strong case that Apple has not pursued safe and fair working conditions at its supplier factories in China as strenuously as it could have. Citing both current and former Apple executives, the NYT details dangerous labor conditions at Apple suppliers and lax oversight from Apple itself. The core of the problem stems from a fundamental conflict between Apple's demand for low margins and fast turnaround with suppliers' need to cut corners to meet those demands — often doing so by sacrificing worker safety.
In one example, after an explosion at a Foxconn factory caused by aluminum dust, Apple did not require consistent ventilation standards across all its supplier factories, which arguably allowed another explosion to occur at a different factory. A safety expert cited by the NYT called Apple's policy here "gross negligence," adding "We solved this problem [of properly ventilating dust] over a century ago."
Although reports of poor working conditions have come out of Apple supplier factories before, now former Apple executives have come forward, albeit anonymously, to criticize the company's supply chain policies. Apple's famously strict control over the supply chain, driven in no small part by CEO Tim Cook, demands perfect products and slim margins. However, executives and workers' rights organizations say it doesn't extend into working conditions as much as it could. Citing the conditions, one former executive said they exist "because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice."
Apple claims that it works to improve and monitor conditions, most recently publishing an audit that revealed underage workers and involuntary labor. Although Apple has performed inspections and audits at an increasing rate since beginning them in 2005, the question of whether or not it genuinely would drop major suppliers — especially Foxconn — doesn't seem to have as clear an answer. One former Apple executive said, "Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear." Former executives say that Apple has only terminated relationships with 15 suppliers since 2007, a claim which seems to verify the lack of teeth in Apple's compliance policies.
Foxconn, of course, denies that it has a problem with working conditions, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Although the effectiveness of Apple's policies are dubious, it does claim that it has seen improvement in labor conditions at the factories it audits. Other technology companies use the same suppliers and face the same issues, but claim they offer more transparency than Apple and, more importantly, less pressure on profit margins.
Apple has just had its greatest and most profitable quarter in history, and actually the best quarter of any tech company ever. If even a portion of the NYT piece is true, some of that profit has come at a very real, very human cost for which Apple shares culpability because of how it oversees its supply chain. Some of that blame also belongs to us, the consumers, who purchase technology products and don't demand better labor practices from the companies that supply them. As a current, anonymous Apple executive points out: "right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China." Whether that describes you or not, the full article is worth a read.