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Apple’s response to the BBC’s sweatshop labor report is completely tone deaf

December 19th, 2014 at 4:04 PM
Apple China Factory Conditions Response

Apple is a terrific company in many ways but it often does not handle criticism all that well. Although there have been times when Apple has shown a commendable willingness to own up to its mistakes — Tim Cook’s apology for the Apple Maps fiasco is one example — just as often it will get overly defensive and will insist, despite evidence to the contrary, that it hasn’t made any mistakes. Recall the company’s initial response to “Antennagate,” in which it told customers that they were holding their phones the wrong way, to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

All of this brings us to Apple’s response to BBC Panorama’s newest report on working conditions in Apple suppliers’ factories that shows a facility owned by Apple supplier Pegatron is violating Apple’s own standards for worker treatment.

Contrary to Apple’s own rules, the report found that workers were forced to work shifts up to 16 hours per day and weren’t given days off for as long as 18 days in a row despite repeated requests. Apple tells its suppliers that workers are not allowed to work more than 60 hours per week and it said last year that it achieved a compliance rate of 99%.

And there’s more — although overtime work is supposed to be strictly voluntary, Panorama found that there was nothing voluntary about it.

“Overtime is supposed to be voluntary, but none of the reporters were offered any choice,” Panorama reports. “In addition to the excessive hours, one reporter had to attend unpaid meetings before and after work. Another reporter was housed in a dormitory where 12 workers shared a cramped room.”

For the record, I don’t think Apple is uniquely bad about these issues and is actually likely better than most other smartphone manufacturers. Samsung suppliers have been found to have similar or worse working conditions in their factories. And I don’t even want to think about what it’s like for workers in Xiaomi plants who churn out smartphones with high-end specs that sell for just $120 each.

That said, Apple has pledged to take the lead in improving its workers’ lives. And that’s why the company should have used this report as an opportunity to come out and say, “While we’ve made progress in many areas, it’s clear that we have a lot more work to do and we’re going to be doing a reevaluation of how we monitor our suppliers’ practices.”

But instead the company said that it was “deeply offended” by the BBC’s accusations that it broke its promises, which is about as tone deaf a response as I can imagine. A documentary has just revealed that one of your suppliers has been apparently deceiving your inspectors about working conditions in its factories and your response is to get angry at the BBC?

The point of all this isn’t to say that Apple is an “evil” company or that anyone should feel guilty buying an iPhone or a Mac. I’m also not calling on Apple to pull manufacturing operations out of China since I know how important these jobs are to people who work at them.

However, there’s nothing wrong with insisting that our favorite companies — whether we’re talking Apple, Samsung or Google — do better on issues of worker treatment, especially when they’ve repeatedly vowed to do so. Apple makes insane profit margins on its iPhones and it can certainly afford to commit more resources for ensuring that the people who manufacture them aren’t forced to work 18 days in a row.

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