Former Exec: Apple’s Commitment To Secrecy “Conflicts” With Humane Factory Working Conditions

Former Exec: Apple’s Commitment To Secrecy “Conflicts” With Humane Factory Working Conditions

While Apple has been actively seeking to improve the working conditions for employees at the Chinese factories manufacturing its products, a former executive for the Cupertino company believes it could do more. The trouble is, Apple’s infamous secrecy is getting in the way.

“We’re trying really hard to make things better,” said one former Apple executive. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

The New York Times has published a lengthy follow-up to last week’s profile on Apple’s manufacturing operations in China. The piece is based on a number of interviews with current and former Apple executives and contractors, in addition to “economists, manufacturing experts, international trade specialists, technology analysts, academic researchers, employees at Apple’s suppliers, competitors and corporate partners, and government officials.”

While the report acknowledges that Apple has “made significant strides in improving factories in recent years,” it also highlights that fact that many of the company’s strict policies and procedures are restricting its progress. One former Apple executive claims that the company wants to improve the working conditions within factories, but “that dedication falters when it conflicts with crucial supplier relationships or the fast delivery of new products.”

Another explains that while the current system “may not be pretty,” customers like you and I want new products delivered every year, and that a radical overhaul to factory conditions would slow innovation:

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

But Apple certainly isn’t ignoring the issue. The company has implemented strict codes of conduct for its suppliers, and it uses a “vigorous auditing campaign” to ensure that abuses to that code are discovered, and that they are corrected. But is it working? More than half of the suppliers audited have reportedly violated at least one aspect of the code every year since 2007, and “troubling patterns persist.”

Last year, the company conducted 229 audits. There were slight improvements in some categories and the detected rate of core violations declined. However, within 93 facilities, at least half of workers exceeded the 60-hours-a-week work limit. At a similar number, employees worked more than six days a week. There were incidents of discrimination, improper safety precautions, failure to pay required overtime rates and other violations. That year, four employees were killed and 77 injured in workplace explosions.

Despite its strict code, a former executive says Apple tolerated noncompliance, as long as suppliers promised to try harder next time. “If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it,” he said. “Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear.”

A former Foxconn employee who worked in management until April when he was dismissed says that Apple is not interested in worker’s welfare:

“Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost,” said Li Mingqi… “Workers’
welfare has nothing to do with their interests.”

But Apple maintains that it is tough on suppliers. Earlier this month the company released its annual supplier responsibility report, and highlighted its zero-tolerance policy for underage labor is “the toughest in the electronics industry.” It has also announced that it has become the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, which will “independently assess facilities in Apple’s supply chain and report detailed findings on the FLA website.”

The NYT’s report concludes that although there is still a lot of work to be done, “there are few real outside pressures for change.” And that “Apple is one of the most admired brands. In a national survey conducted by The New York Times in November, 56 percent of respondents said they couldn’t think of anything negative about Apple.”

The full report is a fascinating read and a detailed look into the manufacturing of Apple’s incredibly popular devices. Be sure to check it out.

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  • FriarNurgle

    Robots and people who want to keep their job don’t complain. Guess which is cheaper… for the time being.

  • nolavabo

    In other words, people are ignorant about what life is like in other countries. Given how few people can even find those countries on a map, this is not surprising. Have a look at work conditions in Kenyan and Mexican farms that produce those organic snow peas that are airfreighted into America, and work out what % of the money they keep too. Or the Nike factories in Indonesia/Vietnam who make your $300 sneakers. Or the metal miners in Chile whose blood and sweat ends up as unrecycled containers in landfill. Life is hard when your country is poor. But all of the above jobs have plenty of takers for each vacancy, because despite the hardships they pay better than a hell of a lot of other jobs in the same country.

    Apple does more than any other tech company to improve work conditions; joining the FLA proves their commitment. (Why they do more is another argument entirely.) If you want to call Apple immoral, then it’s only fair to call it more immoral to buy their competition’s products.

  • morgan3nelson

    “one former Apple executive” doesn’t tell me anything – other than I that I should be very skeptical of what comes next.  Yes, foreign countries are great places to get cheap labor, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Try reporting something that a gazillion other wannabe reporters haven’t covered already.  

  • Adam Karavatakis

    funny how all of this comes out after the big success of Mike Daisey’s show…

  • Bob713

    If you feel there is an injustice here and the workers of the world outside of the US should not make some type of living, then use the “free will thing”. 

  • Greg Johnson

    Virtuous people wish to make a living at a trade they perceive meaningful and beneficial to others around them with little regard to profits beyond their living. Virtuous people do not selfishly wish for profits at the expense of others neither give everything away. However, they find a midline of contentment where both firm and those under its influence profit reasonably. In other words, they hope to serve to benefit of others with hope for a meaningful living.

    Steve Jobs once made a statement about how they want to sell products they would be proud to use themselves and recommend to family and friends. This principle also applies to vocations. Anyone should provide jobs that they would be proud to provide and recommend, and yes, hiring another company is still providing jobs. This also applies to landlords as they should rent quality homes they themselves would be proud to live in or recommend. Anything less than this displays the heart of a slob.

    United States once had the manufacturing ability to sustain innovation in the second half of the twenty-first century. During that time, people could get more U.S. made products for their money than people can for foreign made products now. Along with any other company, Apple could still conduct this in the United States. However, that is not the concern. The concern is the lack of virtues as they place their system of efficiency at a higher priority than making an earnest living from benefiting its neighbors.

    To be just to Apple, sequential U.S. laws passed in the past thirty years have made running a company more difficult. Starting businesses are now easier in many foreign countries than in the United States. Law also obliges corporations to produce the best retort the shareholders deem pertinent.

    Since this is the case, this propagate the question of the law. The law is then not made virtuously for order as the principles of justice demand, but it has been made for other purposes. If the numerous businesses do not act on virtues, and law is not based on virtues. Then this probably discloses general public’s shift from nobility to the worse. This may explain why the United States no longer holds the manufacturing power it once did and why remaining manufactories are now unsatisfactory.

  • Alex


     “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

    And Apple fanboys put their fingers in their ears and enter a new level of DENiAL

  • cassandralite

    Relatively few meat eaters could pull the trigger themselves.  Almost everything bought by consumers comes out of a metaphoric sausage factory that the industrial and technological revolutions keep us from having to look inside.  This is no different, except for the fact that Steve’s biggest fans can’t bear to think of his company as belonging to that club.

  • Alex

    Everyone else is doing it and that makes it ok  ???  Has that argument ever work for you?

    I find it funny how Apple diehards  are desperately try to make excuses for them. Apple is a big multinational, lets stop pretending that they aren’t driven by high profit margins and very little else.  Oh BTW I have owned Apple products  since the early 80′s but I never had illusions about who I was dealing with. 

  • Al

    Well said!

  • Al

    I think we as Apple fans, and I’m including CoM in this, should figure out some sort of way to increase the pressure on Apple to make big strides in improving the manufacturing side.

    I know it has been said that many companies use Foxxcon, but I think we all expect a higher standard from Apple, do we not?

    What can we do? Ideas?

  • Equality 7-2521

    Because as we all know, Apple executives and their vendors go around all over China pointing guns at people’s heads forcing them to leave their other more cushy jobs to go work at their factories.

About the author

Killian BellKillian Bell is a freelance writer based in the UK. He has an interest in all things tech, but most enjoys covering Apple, anything mobile, and gaming. You can follow him on Twitter via @killianbell, or through his website.

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