Apple’s efforts to reform the labor practices of its Chinese suppliers is having a noticeable impact, according to a recent New York Times report. While the changes may be happening slower than some labor advocates would like, Apple’s attempts to improve worker safety, curb excessive overtime, and eliminate the use of child labor is having a “ripple effect” throughout the industry.
In January, NYT published a scathing report planting much of the responsibility for the ills of labor abuses in China on Apple’s shoulders, even as the company became the first electronics manufacturer to join the Fair Labor Association and agreed to independent, third-party audits. The report suggested that Apple executives were willing to look the other way on labor abuses in order to keep costs from Chinese suppliers low. Apple CEO Tim Cook refuted the claims, saying that “any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”
FLA audits conducted in February and March at several Foxconn facilities, which assemble most of Apple’s devices as well as those of other manufacturers, identified 360 “action items” in order to improve working conditions, such as cutting down overtime hours, improving worker safety, increasing wages, and implementing a grievance system so that workers would not fear retribution for reporting problems. FLA inspectors noted in August that 284 of those items had been addressed, many ahead of the schedule formulated by the FLA.
Apple’s efforts are causing other consumer electronics companies and other Chinese OEMs outside of Foxconn to take notice.
“When the largest company [Foxconn] raises wages and cuts hours, it forces every other factory to do the same thing whether they want to or not,” Tony Prophet, a senior vice president at Hewlett-Packard, told NYT. “A firestorm has started, and these companies are in the glare now. They have to improve to compete. It’s a huge change from just 18 months ago.”
But the problem isn’t always an easy one to solve. For instance, even internally at Apple there are disputes about how to fund the improvements to worker conditions. “Executives often believe improvements should be financed by suppliers, whereas suppliers say changes are not feasible unless Apple pays more,” according the report. And while Foxconn is cutting hours down to the 49 hour per week average required by Chinese law, some workers would prefer to work more overtime for extra pay.
Still, many believe there is more Apple could do. “Although we think Apple is among the best in terms of auditing, we still think that Apple can do more because it is the most profitable company in the world,” activist Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch, said earlier this year. “As soon as Apple is willing to give a small percentage of its profits, the workers can benefit a lot.”
An anonymous Apple executive suggested to NYT that the company may be preparing to do just that. “The days of easy globalization are done,” the Apple executive, who requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements, said. “We know that we have to get into the muck now.”