By TIM CULPAN / Pic By BLOOMBERG
I’ve been quite harsh toward Apple Inc for a long time. Having covered the company for close to 15 years, first as a reporter and now a columnist, I’ve spent much time researching and writing about its supply chain and the myriad problems within.
Today, though, it’s time to give credit where it’s due.
Two of my major beefs with Apple relate to the issues of bonded and underage labour. In the first instance, employees working for the iPhone maker’s suppliers are required to pay upfront fees just to secure a job. This money is usually paid to recruitment agencies. The second is self-explanatory.
Both problems have almost been stamped out. According to the company’s annual Supplier Responsibility Report, just two cases of bonded labour were found last year, involving 287 employees. That’s too many, to be sure, but it’s incredible progress compared to two years ago, when 10 violations were uncovered. By employee numbers, it’s an 82% improvement from last year alone.
Freeing the Bonds
Far fewer employees in Apple’s supply chain were found to have been asked to pay for their job, a violation of the company’s code of conduct.
As for underage labour, just one case was uncovered, versus three a year prior. While even one is too many, cases of juveniles slipping into supplier factories are often a result of employees themselves faking documentation.
It’s healthy to remain sceptical about data produced by the company in question, yet for over a decade, these reports have outlined many of Apple’s failings in addition to its successes.
A third area of concern, excessive work hours, remains the single-largest cause of demerits for suppliers in Apple’s assessment of labour and human rights. That said, supplier compliance hit 96% last year, while cases of falsified working-hours data fell to 24 from 38.
Fewer violations also means that suppliers are being forced by Apple to repay less money to staff.
Overtime is a tricky one for Apple and its manufacturers to deal with because quite often employees want to work excessive hours to get more pay. This is among the reasons why Foxconn Technology Group handed out massive pay rises eight years ago, allowing people to work less for the same wage. In an interesting twist, that spurred staff to work even more, according to anecdotes I came across, because the higher salary boosted the economic incentive to put in extra hours.
While the figure has yet to reach zero, Apple showed gains in key areas of labour standards.
Sceptics will note that all is not perfect in the electronics supply chain. Just a year ago, I expressed my dismay at Apple’s inability to rein in some wayward suppliers that were providing unsafe working conditions. I suspect we’ll see more anecdotes, like those dug up by Bloomberg News last year involving Catcher Technology Co Ltd.
And you can be sure that I’ll be holding Apple’s feet to the fire with regard to labour conditions.
But for now, the company deserves kudos for the gains it has made, and its commitment to keep doing better. — Bloomberg
- This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.