Apple Supplier Audit Reveals Child Labor, More Violations

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Apple has been criticized in the past for not doing enough to ensure that labor conditions in its supplier factories were up to international humanitarian standards. Today, it released its 2010 Supplier Responsibility report (PDF), in which it provides the details of audits it conducts at those supplier facilities, in order to gauge the degree to which violations are or aren’t taking place.

This time around, the report details no less than 17 violations at its supplier facilities, and more than a few of them are fairly serious indeed. Underage worker serious, in fact. Apple’s inspectors found that 11 employees were employed prior to being of legal working age in the countries in question.

According to the report, the age issue was moot at the time the audit was conducted, since the employees in question had either reached legal age by then, or were no longer employed at the supplier. Kind of convenient if you ask me that all of these violations just happened to be past offenses and required no action. Plus, I can’t imagine Apple’s audits come as a surprise to suppliers, so who knows the extent to which the violations might truly go.

Besides the age violations, inspectors from Apple also found that more than 50 of its supplier’s factories forced employers to work more than 60 hours in a given week, a maximum cap set by Apple themselves. Many of the facilities were also found to be not paying staff correctly. 48 facilities were using improper calculations to determine overtime pay, and at 24 workers were receiving less than the minimum wage for regular working hours. In those cases, the reason given was largely that employees needed to meet strict attendance requirements before becoming eligible for the minimum wage rate.

Other violations included depriving staff of benefits like sick leave, and the falsification of records. Many of the falsification violations occurred in conjunction with other types of offenses, which makes you wonder how many times falsifications were “successful” and went unnoticed. At least one facility was found to have definitely covered up hiring underage employees in the past, and another was found to have hidden records of overworking and underpaying employees.

Apple’s audit this year was the largest on record improving on the 83 facilities covered in the report covering the 2008 period:

In 2009, Apple conducted audits at 102 facilities, including annual audits of all final assembly manufacturers, first-time audits of component and nonproduction suppliers, and 15 repeat audits of facilities where a core violation had been discovered. During most of our audits, suppliers stated that Apple was the only company that had ever audited their facility for supplier responsibility.

It’s excellent to find that in some cases Apple is basically acting as a regulatory body where none would otherwise exist, but what are the consequences if facilities are found to have actually perpetrated violations? Especially in the case of child labor violations, one might expect to see Apple ending professional relationships, particularly when repeat violations become apparent. Not necessarily so, though. The section detailing the “corrective action process” informs as to what the actual consequences are for these suppliers:

When a violation is found, Apple requires the facility to implement a corrective action plan that addresses not only the specific violation, but also the underlying management system needed to prevent its recurrence. We track completion of each corrective action to closure, with an expectation that all violations will be corrected as quickly as possible, but not later than 90 days after the audit.

If, after a follow-up audit to determine that corrective action has been taken, the company is still found to be in violation, Apple works further with them to ensure that the fix really is put in place. Finally, as a course of last resort, “Apple may have no choice but to terminate the business relationship.”

I respect Apple’s efforts regarding this responsibility report. No one is forcing them to do this, and it does seem like Cupertino is attempting to bring its considerable pressure to bear in improving the working conditions of some of its most vulnerable employees. But without actual consequences implemented in a swift and consistent manner, it just seems like a public relations exercise instead of a measure genuinely concerned with the welfare of human beings.

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