After a week dedicated to the fetishism of consumer electronics, it seems fitting to remind ourselves that those products are built under conditions that would probably shock a fair amount of those complaining about cab lines during CES 2012. Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) released its annual report on the companies that actually build its products Friday, and it found that an awful lot of those suppliers violate Apple’s labor guidelines.
The report, which Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (NSDQ: NWS), reveals that only 38 percent of Apple’s suppliers followed the company’s guidelines for the number of hours in a week–60–that workers should not exceed. “At 90 facilities, more than half of the records we reviewed indicated that workers had worked more than 6 consecutive days at least once per month, and 37 facilities lacked an adequate working day control system to ensure that workers took at least 1 day off in every 7 days,” Apple wrote in the report.
Much less common was “involuntary labor” or underage labor, but Apple did find 2 instances of the former at suppliers who had been previously flagged for apparently forcing people to work. Apple dropped one of those suppliers and is “correcting the practices of the other supplier.”
Evidence of underage labor was found at 15 facilities but involving just six active cases and 13 historical cases, Apple said. In response, “we required the suppliers to support the young workers’ return to school and to improve their management systems–such as labor recruitment practices and age verification procedures–to prevent recurrences.”
Apple did 229 audits of its suppliers during 2011, up 80 percent from the checks it performed in 2010. The company also said it would join the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit group that monitors working conditions in factories retained by clothing retailers like Nike and Adidas. Apple is the only consumer electronics company on the list of companies that have agreed to Fair Labor Association oversight.
Apple gets a lot of criticism for its use of suppliers that employ people under harsh conditions: NPR’s This American Life recently did a segment on the issue featuring Mike Daisey, who excoriates the company in a one-man show entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. There have been 12 instances of suicide at plants retained by Apple to make its products, according to Bloomberg, and Apple said in the report that four people died earlier this year in an explosion at a plant that makes iPads.
But this is an industry-wide problem: almost all the gadgets on display at CES were manufactured under similar–or worse–conditions using many of the same suppliers.
Apple’s full report (PDF), which also gets into a discussion of environmental practices at its suppliers, can be found here. The company posted the report along with a description of its supplier code on its home page, and for the first time in the history of the notoriously secretive company, it released a list of nearly all of its suppliers.