In its second quarter 2011 financial results Apple reported record profits – even ahead of Microsoft’s subsequent quarterly figures. But there is increasing concern that the profit is being made at the cost of Chinese workers.
Recent press articles, include the UK’s Observer newspaper last Sunday, reported the harsh conditions in place in Chinese factories making iPhones and iPads.
On top of the basic 48-hour week, workers generally work well over the limit of 36 hours overtime a month allowed by Chinese law, with 60-80 hours overtime common. They can also work up to 13 days in a row without a break. That’s all for a daily wage as low as £5.20. And if you don’t work well or do as you’re told, public humiliation is possible in some factories.
Workers also live in large, crowded dormitories and, perhaps not surprisingly, some have been asked to sign suicide pledges. As the result of previous incidents 'anti-suicide’ netting has been placed around the dormitories.
The information is based on interviews with workers in factories owned by Foxconn at Shenzhen and Chengdu, which produces large quantities of Apple products. Two NGOs - the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo) and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom) - talked to the workers.
The use of chemicals in some Apple factories in China is also causing concern. Earlier in the year, GreenIT.fr wrote a piece entitle “Why I will never buy an iPad” which detailed the exposure of workers in China to toxic chemicals while manufacturing iPhone’s. It said that in 2009 62 people working for Apple Wintek had been poisoned with n-hexane and four had died. The article called for free health checks for workers, safety of plants and respect the Chinese labour laws.
What makes all this worse is that early last year Apple rejected two shareholder resolutions calling for the publication of a separate sustainability report and the creation of a Board Committee on Sustainability.
I’m sure the company will have answers for some of the claims above, but it seems that Apple could put a lot more effort in to protecting employees in China. The IT industry will inevitably be at the forefront of a move to more sustainable business. Those that set an example in product and profit have a duty to also set an example in protecting workers.