You Can’t Have Your Apple And Eat It Too

How corporately irresponsible is Apple?

  • Graphic Sam Jones

As I write this article on my MacBook Pro with an iPhone5 lying by its side, I’m aware of the inherent contradiction and apparent hypocrisy I’m about to engage in. But this won’t disqualify me from advocating for better working conditions for Apple’s manufacturers.

On their website, Apple say that “We’re working to eradicate unethical hiring and the exploitation of workers—even when local laws permit such practices. We’re continuing to end excessive work hours.”

Organizations like the China Labor Watch (which has been doing watchdog work in China for the past 15 years, investigating and often criticizing labour conditions in China) are challenging Apple to live up to the image the corporation wants to exude

I spoke to Kevin Slaten from CLW and he helped me elucidate some of my findings.

“In recent years we have become actively involved in the China labour movement, including the civil society, supporting NGOs, training activists, starting a grievance channel for workers to call and share information,” he explained, “particularly with those related to large very profitable brand companies that have a lot of power in these factories, to the extent that they can control labour conditions on the supply chain.”

It is thanks to all of us, the consumers, that Apple has become both the most valuable brand and multinational corporation on the planet; so ingrained in our culture that it exercises a grotesquely monopolistic control over entire societies. Capitalism needs competition. This is embodied by the fact that Apple typically makes between a 30 and 40 per cent profit on their products. They can charge ludicrous prices because no other product is, frankly, as good.

In a recent report by CLW (in conjunction with Green America) on Apple parts manufacturer Catcher Technology entitled “Two Years of Broken Promises,” a broad range of labour abuses were detailed. In order to get a greater insight into this report, the CLW’s Kevin Slaten elaborated on its conception. “CLW is well known for undercover probes,” he told me. “We send in investigators as workers. They get hired and work there for weeks and sometimes months.”

This has led to the CLW documenting discriminatory hiring policies, stumbling blocks which make it difficult for workers to dispute labor conditions, an absence of sufficient training, mandatory overtime and an absence of functional unions.

Without overtime, an average worker in one of the third party plants in China will earn around 2,000RMD a month, the equivalent of about $320 US. “That’s not a living wage,” claimed Slaten. “You can’t live on that in a big city, especially if you have a family.”

Without overtime, an average worker in one of the third party plants in China will earn around 2,000RMD a month, the equivalent of about $320 US. “That’s not a living wage,” claimed Slaten. “You can’t live on that in a big city, especially if you have a family.”

There are plenty of effective deductions to this wage, including a one-off $40 for social insurance, $0.81 per day for lunch (workers aren’t allowed to leave the factory to eat), $9.72 per month for accommodation, $7.31 per month per person for energy bills at accommodation and $0.24 for a bottle of Kangshi Boshan water. This water isn’t provided for free, bottled or dispensed, and is $0.08 above the price it is sold in stores outside of the plant.

“Workers are living in the most base conditions possible because they’re trying to save as much of that money as possible,” asserted Slaten. I think this illustrates what kind of subsistence wage the third parties Apple deals with pay their workers.

They state on their Supplier Responsibility page on their website that “All overtime must be absolutely voluntary,” however, the findings of this report directly contradict this.

In December, the BBC broadcasted a documentary called “Apple’s Broken Promises” that included video footage of workers being intimidated into working overtime. According to Slaten, this proves that beneath the surface of corporate spiel “the details are more murky. Overtime is not voluntary—the manager said, ‘You do overtime or you leave, I don’t need you around here if you’re not going to work.’”

Another report by China Labor Watch entitled “iExploitation: Apple Supplier Jabil Exploits Workers to Meet iPhone6 Demands” states that “even after accumulating up to 158 hours of overtime per month, Jabil workers will earn less than the local average wage.”

Conveniently, however, it’s not actually Apple who does the exploiting. Firms like Jabil and Catcher bid for contracts and then Apple leaves everything in their hands, thus allowing the corporation to distance itself from its suppliers’ actions while painting itself as an interventionist mediator.

Although Apple has promoted a Supplier Code of Conduct since 2005—which details standard practices for employee rights under third parties—it’s naïve to presume they will always be followed.

It is my opinion that Apple ought to build their own factories, employ their own staff and ensure standard practices are upheld themselves. They are the third-most profitable company on earth and registered a profit of $39 billion last year, on top of their $155 billion in the bank. They’re worth nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Is it wishful thinking to question why Apple doesn’t eat into its profit margin in order to prevent the exploitation of those at the bottom of the global pile?

Apple is back in the spotlight once again, after The New York Times documented poor working conditions in 2012 amidst an explosion at an iPad assembly factory which killed four and injured 18. Since then, ABC’s Nightline has also reported long shifts and low wages.

Employees at Apple’s factories in China are typically domestic workers who queue for hours at recruitment centres in gender-segregated cattle pens.

At the Foxconn Shenzhen Longhua employee accommodation centres, where 235,000 workers live in rooms of 8 for slave wages, suicide nets were famously erected in 2010—and it was actually covered in the Western media, although the reporting could be classified as impersonal. One lede read, “A suicide cluster in 2010 saw 18 workers throw themselves from the tops of the company’s buildings, with 14 deaths.”

Men and women travel for hours to work at these Apple plants and once they arrive they cannot leave, since they have nowhere else to go. In some instances, it’s either overtime or suicide. In 2012, 150 Foxconn employees in Shanghai threatened to commit suicide if working conditions were not improved. Imagine the outrage this would cause in the West. We can’t attribute too much blame to the docile Western consumer of Apple products, but we ought to hold the multinational corporations to account more often.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand denotes that free market economics will be best guided through competition for resources without government intervention. That suggests that it’s OK that cars are made in Germany, wine is made in France, maple syrup is made in Canada, and painstakingly long days on the production line are spent in China.

But should we not, in 2015, challenge the notion that it’s morally all right for massive Western-owned multinationals to follow the practice of obtaining goods or services by contract from whichever outside source has the cheapest available workforce?

The advent of outsourcing is a relatively recent innovation—its only been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1981—as Western industrialized economies have abandoned their manufacturing sectors. Marx once wrote, “The need for a constantly expanding outlet for their products pursues the bourgeoisie over the whole world. It must get a foothold everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

Employing workers domestically would eat into Apple’s profits, so in order to minimize their production expenditures Apple, a company based in San Francisco, has the bulk of their manufacturing and assembly plants in China and other parts of Asia. This is largely to avoid minimum wages in the West that are tenfold of those in the East. A starting wage would often be around $1.78 per hour, so low that China does not deduct any payroll taxes. The minimum wage in China differs from region to region; in the Guangdong municipality of Shenzhen they recently upped their minimum wage to 1,808 Yuan per month, equivalent to $290.

When I spoke to Apple spokesperson Tara Hendela, she assured us that Apple was “combating excessive recruitment fees and bonded labor.” The reports cited above clearly contradict this claim, which suggests Apple is not doing enough. Are they being willfully, or un-willfully ignorant?

Hendela continued, “Since 2008, our suppliers have reimbursed a total of US$16.9 million to contract workers, including US$3.9 million in 2013.” If that $3.9 million was divided solely between the 235,000 employees at the Foxconn Shehzen factory it would be a mere $16.60 each; that’s small change to say the least.

When I made this point, amongst others, Hendela stated that she had “no official comment to add to [my] story” and directed me towards an open letter from Apple in response to the BBC’s “Apple’s Broken Promises” which was published in conservative newspaper The Telegraph.

It primarily recycled corporate speak that the BBC’s documentary disproved with video evidence. It also assured Apple employees that 1400 of their “compassionate” coworkers were stationed in China to manage manufacturing operations.

In their 2013 Annual Report regarding their “corporate social responsibility” Foxconn—just one of the many third parties in Apple’s supply chain—reported they have at least 1,000,000 employees in China. In 2014 Apple’s Supplier Responsibility team completed 630 “comprehensive, in-person audits.” These measures simply are not enough when you consider that the workforce in China alone is in the multimillions.

It’s very easy to blame third parties that are based in authoritarian states for the shortcomings in your supply chain. The third most profitable company of all time ought to begin taking responsibility and cease to outsource their labour to countries whose employment laws fall way below those in North America.

I contacted several political parties for a comment on outsourcing and received no reply.

You can read the CLW report for yourself at chinalaborwatch.org

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