New iPhones, Same Old Working Conditions

The hot debate over whether the new iPhones incorporate substantial improvements, or will spur even larger profits for Apple, misses a fundamental point. Whether or not the iPhones constitute a breakthrough for Apple’s business, their production process does not constitute a breakthrough for the workers making them. Despite an 18-month old highly-publicized commitment by Apple to dramatically reform working conditions in its supply chain, these conditions still include widespread abuses of labor laws and common decency, as well as widespread violations of Apple promises and its supplier code of conduct. Three of the latest undercover investigations by China Labor Watch and a recent review of Apple reform promises I conducted with Scott Nova of the Workers Rights Consortium support this conclusion.

The first of the China Labor Watch studies was an in-depth investigation of conditions for workers making the new iPhones at Apple’s second largest supplier, Pegatron. The study, released July 29, found Pegatron in violation of 17 specific commitments made in Apple’s supplier code of conduct, and 86 labor rights violations overall in areas such as hiring practices, wages, hours worked, and living conditions. As one illustration, Apple has touted its success in ensuring that workers in its supply chain work no more than 60 hours a week, a dubious accomplishment at best, since the limit under Chinese law is 49 hours a week. China Labor Watch found even this weak standard has not been achieved.  At the three Pegatron factories examined, the average number of hours worked ranged from 66 to 69 hours per week, and in at least one factory these excessive hours were concealed because workers were forced to sign false time sheets.

The second China Labor Watch investigation (pdf), released September 5, examined conditions for workers at a factory in China making plastic covers for the new iPhone 5c. This factory, owned by the U.S. company Jabil Circuit (headquartered in Florida), also routinely worked its employees well over 60 hours per week, with overtime hours triple that allowed by Chinese law, and generally operated in a manner inconsistent with Apple’s code of conduct (which Apple has promised to implement). The other violations include forced overtime, unpaid overtime, grossly inadequate training regarding health and safety issues, arbitrary worker punishments, and poor eating and living conditions.

The latest China Labor Watch report, issued September 10, followed up on Pegatron’s disturbing treatment of student workers, a category of workers that Apple has repeatedly promised to protect. China Labor Watch found that Pegatron’s production of the new iPhones relied on thousands of student workers this summer, exploiting them through a series of wage abuses. The CLW findings, based on explicit confirmations by 100 students, indicate that students commonly worked unpaid overtime, and if they were considered “interns”, were paid 20 percent less than other workers performing the same tasks, even though this work was typically unrelated to their studies. Further, students could only work two months, since that is the extent of their summer break, but they were forced to sign three-month work agreements.  Then their wages for these two months were reduced by the equivalent of eight work days because they did not—they could not, as the company well knew—comply with this agreement. (Apple has responded to the CLW information by pushing Pegatron to rectify some abuses, but Apple has not implemented a systematic solution.)

In late August, Scott and I considered the essential question of whether Apple has achieved the reform commitments it so publically made in early 2012, given that the generous 15-month compliance period established by Apple’s chosen investigator, the Fair Labor Association, had ended. The lack of information provided by the FLA and Apple complicated our assessment, but the available evidence suggests that Apple has not fulfilled several fundamental commitments. The evidence that Scott and I reviewed indicates that Apple has not met commitments to ensure that workers in its supply chain receive retroactive compensation for working unpaid overtime, has not ensured promised wage increases, and has not, through the FLA, provided an assessment of the livable wage standard for its Chinese workers. Apple also has not met its commitment to reduce overtime work hours to the level allowed by Chinese law; it has not even met its less lenient standard of reducing work weeks to 60 hours. Further, Apple has not met its commitment to ensure workers in its Chinese supply chain have a true voice in the workplace. And the more intensive study of working conditions, as undertaken by the FLA, has involved less than one-fifth of the workers in Apple’s supply chain, a figure far short of what Apple had promised.

All of this suggests that Apple’s next rollout should relate to new and improved working conditions for the more than one million workers in its supply chain, instead of to its next new and improved product. Apple, and most of the attention on Apple, continues to be one-sidedly focused on whether its new products take the world even further into the breathtaking technological future, while largely ignoring the fact that the working conditions under which these products are made reflect some of the worst practices of the industrial era.