Apple’s Factories Are “Sweatshops” — But They’re Better Than Competition, Says Labor Activist



Labor activist Qiang Li of China Labor Watch
Apple is doing a better job auditing its suppliers than it’s competitors, says a China labor activist.

Labor activist Qiang Li says Apple is doing a much better job of monitoring factory conditions than Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia and many others.

“I compared Apple with other cell phone companies, such as Nokia. And the conditions in those factories are worse than the ones of Apple,” he said.

However, Li says that conditions in the supply chain are not the responsibility of the suppliers themselves or the Chinese government. Apple ultimately bears responsibility, and the company should spend some of its record profits in improving conditions.

Li is the founder of China Labor Watch, the leading advocacy group that helped the New York Times investigate conditions in Chinese electronics factories, which has helped re-ignite the debate about conditions.

“Although I know that the iPhone 4 is made at sweat shop factories in China, I still think that this is the only choice, because Apple is actually one of the best,” Li told Laptop magazine.

Li praised Apple for disclosing the problems it has uncovered at it suppliers, especially because Apple’s reports are so serious and disturbing. He noted that competitors like HP and Dell haven’t been anywhere near as forthcoming.

He said Foxconn, which is infamous because of employee suicides, is actually one of the best places to work in the supply chain. Foxconn is a hard place to work, with long hours, grueling deadlines and abusive management. But pay and benefits are higher, Foxconn workers receive health and safety training, are properly equipped, and the plants are checked daily for safety compliance, according to a China Labor Watch report (“Tragedies of Globalization: The Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops”)

“Foxconn is not good,” Li told the New York Times. “But if we compare all industries, electronics, textile, toys, Foxconn is one of the best.”

Li compared Foxconn to Compal Electronics, which has much poorer safety practices.

At Compal Electronics, a huge supplier that manufactures notebooks for Dell, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba, workers reported that the company does not provide face masks or ear plugs, despite loud noises. Apparently, there was not even a first-aid kit available. “In the event of an injury,” Labor Watch writes, “the workshop manager will give the injured worker some cotton to cover up their injury.”

But even though Apple does more than it competitors, it is ultimately responsible for the conditions at suppliers’ factories, Li argues.

Reading about the abusive managers, poor safety conditions, filthy living accommodations, long hours, and low wages, it’s tempting to blame the suppliers who run the factories or government authorities who are charged with enforcing China’s 2008 Labor Law. According to Li, China’s Bureau of Labor is limited in its abilities by local governments that receive tax revenue from the factories, but don’t have to provide benefits to what they classify migrant workers. The suppliers, he says, are also limited, because of price and production pressures from Apple and the other OEMs.

“If Apple still lowers their prices and doesn’t give enough profits to the factories, then the factories don’t have money to improve the labor conditions,” he said. “So it’s always the problem of Apple and not the problem of factories. We can see that Apple is trying to put all the responsibility on the factories by releasing the supplier factory list and trying to put the factories into the focus of the immediate public, but we think that Apple should do more to make a positive change in the whole system.”

Though he believes that Apple has done a better job of inspecting its factories than others, Li maintains that the public is right to put more pressure on Tim Cook’s company than its competitors who have the same problems. Because Apple makes the most profit, he reasons, it also bears the most responsibility for fixing a broken system. He maintains that it wouldn’t take more than 2-percent of Apple’s profits to dramatically improve workers’ lives in China while companies such as Dell and HP would have to spend more.

“Although we think Apple is among the best in terms of auditing, we still think that Apple can do more because it is the most profitable company in the world,” he said. “As soon as Apple is willing to give a small percentage of its profits, the workers can benefit a lot. But Apple is not willing to do that.”

  • walt23

    Just wanted to turn your attention to a resource that may prove helpful for a better understanding of what goes on in such factories, and why workers around the world “choose” to work there. I’m the “as told to” author of Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan, the only first-hand account of sweatshop conditions on US Commonwealth of Saipan; Currently being used as a text for Women’s Studies course at Cal State Fullerton and at least one other University in the northeast.Many of the conditions that people associate with Chinese factories were happening on US soil on the US Commonwealth island of Saipan. I lived there for 5 years, and while writing this book. More details here: http://www.saipanfactorygirl.c…–Walt Goodridge

  • steven gee

    However, Qiang says that conditions in the supply chain are not the responsibility of the suppliers themselves or the Chinese government. Apple ultimately bears responsibility, and the company should spend some of its record profits in improving conditions”


    Foxconn has NO responsibility over the working conditions ITS workers ?
    And the Chinese government has NO responsibility to its citizens to have a safe workplace?

    ONLY Apple is responsible? This statement removes any and all credibility from Mr. Qiang and his puppet group.

    In America the government has something called OSHA which sets safety standards for factorys and we hold the people who OWN and OPERATE the factories responsible for THEIR actions toward their employees.

    This is such a FUD’rucker it’s obcene !!

  • Tombo

    “public is right to put more pressure on Tim Cook’s company than its competitors who have the same problems. Because Apple makes the most profit, he reasons, it also bears the most responsibility for fixing a broken system.”

    I disagree. Scrutiny should be placed on all the companies that exploit foreign labor by not providing at least a minimally safe working environment, and I want Dell, Nokia, et. al. to feel the pain too.

    I do believe that if any company has the stones to respond to this problem and ensure a minimally safe working environment, it’s Apple.

    Think of it as a competitive advantage. If Apple can raise the wages in China, and cheap labor markets all over the world, her competition won’t be able to keep up with their less-than-Apple-efficient supply chains.

  • Phil

    Soooooo when our country had the same problem in the 1930s and earlier it was a company who supported labor laws? Excuse me, but I thought that the government was here to help protect people and and their rights. If it’s up to companies to do this, then I don’t care what company it is, it is not going to make policies that will make their products cost more.

  • Lars Pallesen

    >>However, Qiang says that conditions in the supply chain are not the responsibility of the suppliers themselves or the Chinese government.<<

    Excuse me? Working conditions at Apple’s chinese suppliers are NOT the responsibility of said suppliers themselves or the Chinese Governtment?? Huh?

  • James T

    Not sure why it gets reported as Apple’s factories. Foxxconn makes the XBOX 360, PS3, Amazon Kindle and the Wii which none of these have anything to do with Apple but all are direct competitors of Apple in one form or another. Notable companies that use Foxxconn, note how many are within the USA. Oh Apple is the popular one at the moment so it is their factory. 
    Acer Inc. (Taiwan)[27] (United States)[28]Apple Inc. (United States)[29]ASRock (Taiwan)[citation needed]Asus (Taiwan)[citation needed]Barnes & Noble (United States)[citation needed]Cisco (United States)[30]Dell (United States)[31]EVGA Corporation (United States)Hewlett-Packard (United States)[32]Intel (United States)[33]IBM (United States)[citation needed]Lenovo (China)[citation needed]Microsoft (United States)[34]MSI (Taiwan)[citation needed]Motorola (United States)[31]Netgear (United States)[citation needed]Nintendo (Japan)[35]Nokia (Finland)[29]Panasonic (Japan)[citation needed]Samsung (South Korea)[36]Sharp (Japan)[citation needed]Sony (Japan)[37]Sony Ericsson (Japan/Sweden)[38]Vizio (United States)[39]

  • Len Williams

    Welcome to the socialist viewpoint at its most obvious. No one has any responsibility for conditions at Foxconn except Apple because they have such an enormous profit. Let’s spread the wealth around again folks. Of course Apple has some responsibility in policing its suppliers, but so do the Chinese government and each of the manufacturing and assembling companies involved. Foxconn gets away with its horrible labor practices because there are billions of workers in China who all want jobs, and will work for cheap wages and no benefits because it beats not having any income at all. The next time you want to recommend socialism/communism in all its glory, remember China and Foxconn. China has HUGE government yet can’t seem to make a dent in the labor practices of its companies.

  • VedX

    Yes, what you say is true.  This is a capitalist world, and it’s dog eat dog.  You want to make a few pennies to feed your starving family, well, we want cheap goods, so it’s a deal!  So Americans want fancy electronic gadgets and Chinese farmers need to eat.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.  The Chinese government do something?  Well, it’s either let the farmers make their money and ruin their health but feed their children, or close down the plant and their whole family starves (plus Americans have to start getting India-made iPads which fall apart when you pick them up).  It’s a lose-lose.  How about the American government force its companies to ensure that American labor standards must apply in companies they outsource to instead?  Well, that’s not going to happen because now American consumers have to pay double for their electronic goodies, and no government official wants to be responsible for that.  So let’s all just enjoy the by-products of evil.  But just don’t make me sick by pretending to be on some higher moral ground and pointing your finger at other people or governments.  We’re all just a bunch of greedy, selfish pigs; the only difference is that not all of us admit it, and some of us have the wherewithal to call the kettle black.

  • VedX

    It’s like how American businessmen go on sex tours to Thailand and exploit Thai children.  Their government is busy enough trying to feed their population, and turning away American businessmen is not a top priority.  Now is it the Thai government’s fault and the fault of the madams?  Of course!  Do the American businessmen and the U.S. government not have any fault?  Well, I would say they are even more guilty.  This is the same thing Lars, maybe you enjoy your cheap electronic goods and maybe you don’t pressure your government to force US companies to only use suppliers that don’t abuse their staff, and maybe you enjoy exploiting children, I don’t know.  But the only thing worse that you can do is lay the blame on the victims and pretend to be on a higher moral ground.  Because you are not.  You’re the john.  It’s your country that is allowing you to go around and exploiting children without punishing you so long as you don’t do it at home.

  • thebensonlao

    “than competition’s”

  • iDaveG

    @Leander Kahney To be honest I have had enough of this witch hunt on Apple, if these other maker don’t give a toss then why don’t you write about them?

  • Al

    I agree 100%. They all bare responsibility. Someone else who bares responsibility is our own, western, governments. The EU (for example) would not accept imports of goods which are defective or below certain safety standards — so why do they not look more closely at how these goods are made? They already do to some extent — but is it enough?

  • Al

    So Apple is the best of the worst.

    That’s not good enough.

    I think we all want Apple to be the best of the best.

  • Al

    THANK YOU to Cult of Mac and Leander for publishing these articles. This is the most important topic regarding Apple right now and you’re doing a first class job in covering it.

    Keep up the good work!

  • ctt1wbw

    That pic doesn’t look like a sweatshop to me.  Electronics have to be made in “clean rooms” which are by no means sweatshops.  If there are long working hours, then that doesn’t constitute a “sweatshop”.  In my 20 years in the Navy, sometimes I worked 14 hours a day for 80 to 90 days straight, sometimes without breathing fresh air, if you get my drift.  Does that constitute a “sweatshop”?

  • nolavabo

    Li Qiang makes the following argument; Apple is trying harder to do right than everybody else, but  it’s still not enough. He goes on to say they should be pressured to do more because they make more profit. This is a stupid tactic because there is no incentive for Apple to do more in this scenario.

    At this point, the pressure needs to broaden out and be applied industry wide to everybody, equally, to improve pay and conditions. This would create greater incentive for Apple to do more, seemingly ironically. Companies are driven by only two things; their values and their profit. Industry wide pressure would appeal to both of these points at Apple, while continuing to single them out would not. Let’s examine.

    Values – Apple does more than anybody else; apart from the haters this seems to be universally agreed upon. Obviously their metric is to be the best, which they already are. But instead of receiving praise for it, they take all of the industry’s flak while those who do nothing get a free pass. If the media reportedly rationally, and due to pressure the rest of the industry improved their game, Apple would in turn lift theirs in order to stay at the front of the pack.

    Profit – Simply telling them to make less profit while everybody else does absolutely nothing also does not motivate them. Again, an industry wide push for ALL companies to do more would be a competitive advantage to Apple. If everybody improved conditions and saw the same profit hit, then Apple would be far more willing to take the profit hit for strategic business reasons. I’m sure with reflection you can think of a dozen ways that Apple could gain advantage in this scenario, but only if the industry as a whole is compelled to pay Chinese workers more.

    If you want to convince a company to alter its behaviour, you need to explain what’s in it for them. To me, singling out Apple looks like exactly the wrong tactic at this point.

  • MIke Walczak

    And this is Apple’s problem why?

  • Phil

    I’m pretty sure apple has something to do with Iran’s nuclear program too. Apple needs to do better.

  • Brandon Dillon

    Were you in a submarine?

  • Cold_dead_fingers

    Okay, look, I’m on both sides. People saying that all Apple needs to do is skim 2% of their profits to help… need to disclose the reality; 2% of what Apple makes is 1.2 billion dollars. And, to be honest, I’d rather Apple spend that money in AMERICA than China. We owe China trillions as it is, American companies should invest in our own infrastructure.

    That’s not to say I believe in what’s happening overseas. I think it’s very unfortunate that anyone has to live under those conditions. Then again, animals live through that everyday and I’m one of the few that fight on their behalf.

  • ctt1wbw

     4 of them, plus 7 other surface ships.

  • aardman

    Quote:  “However, Qiang says that conditions in the supply chain are not the responsibility of the suppliers themselves or the Chinese government.” 

    Quote: “Because Apple makes the most profit, he reasons, it also bears the most responsibility for fixing a broken system.”

    The gentleman doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a modern free enterprise economy.  It is the responsibility of the government to set standards and then enforce it.  Companies will always try to cut corners on working conditions because of the pressure of competition.  That’s true whether it’s in China, the U.S. or anywhere else.  You embrace the free enterprise system because it is the most efficient in getting the maximum value of output from your inputs.  But you put in minimal standards on working conditions, environmental protection, etc. because you know that without it, the force of competition will lead to abuses.

  • aardman

    Yup.  I don’t know but I guess this is the kind of weird thinking that goes on when you try to graft a communist root stock with a capitalist trunk and grow it in Confucian soil.

  • Honyant

    If Apple skim 2% of their profit to help then, according to the logic of Li Qiang, it is not the responsibility of the supplier to pass that 2% on to their workers.

  • Gheedsgreed

    because this isn’t cult of dell

  • CharliK

    If you add up all the other boys they are likely more labor use than Apple. Apple makes the most profits because their prices are higher. 

    And folks really need to stop with the APPLE FACTORY talk. Apple doesn’t own or control Foxconn and respectable sites would remember this and stop continuing the myth that Foxconn=Apple. Doing so is disrespectful to Apple and dismisses that Dell etc are part of the issue. 

  • CharliK

    So you think that CoM and Leander are worthy of praise for writing slanted articles that are full of half truths and false implications rather than pretending to be journalists and writing fair, balanced and complete articles. 

  • CharliK

    Basically he wants to pawn off the responsibility and the cost on someone else so the Foxconn bosses can keep their profit levels. 

  • CharliK

    I think you mean “and this is only Apple’s problem why?”. Because companies should hold their suppliers accountable for such things. But Apple isn’t the only client Foxconn has so it should be just their concern. It should be all of the companies. 

    Rather like in the same way that it shouldn’t be Apple’s problem to fix all the issues in the US, a sentiment that even Steve Jobs expressed before he died. 

  • iDaveG

    Really, damn you’ve got me there Sherlock. 

    So Cult of Mac is the only site that has run a story on Apple / Foxconn working conditions. So no mention of this on Engadget, BBC UK Tech News etc etc or even the TV news.

  • Adam Goodrich

    “Apple’s factories are sweatshops but they are better than the competition.” Oh okay I believe you. I’m sure I can trust “” to give me unbiased reporting.

  • KhaledAlwaleed

    Total BS (Also please read top comments on covers exactly what i’m saying and much more….
    There’s a reason why this article just came out now after Apple’s announced their earnings. it’s this dude’s time to shine for a few days, that’s all this is about for him. As for CBS, they need viewership and what better than doing all this while focusing on Apple as if Microsoft, Sony and all the other electronics companies never said they “want to be leaders” too. Give me a break! Total BS focusing on one company and totally dismissing Apple and their efforts. At the end of the day it’s FOXCONN’s responsibility FIRST then ALL the companies it is a customer to NOT just one. As for this TOTAL BS about child labor, give me a break. CBS needs to dive into their and their families lives before judging why a -15 (clap) 14(clap) 13(clap) and 12(clap) year old kids work. Life in China is NOT easy (as life is tough everywhere else in the world) and to survive some have to work. Yes i understand, NOT under certain concision, GRANTED, but it’s a reality some people need to understand. Kids work ALL the time everywhere, and if they are over worked, focus on WHO IS EMPLOYING them (Foxconn) not who their employer is a customer for (ALL electronics companies that Foxconn works for). This piece, total waste of time because it is NOT thorough at all. I mean COME ON. If CBS really was interested in the workers as apposed to solely focusing on Apple, it would have given this piece the time it deserves (NOT JUST 10 MINUTES!) and actually looked though ALL companies and aspects of this article. TOTAL BS… It is a story that DESERVES MUCH MORE THAN YOUR PRECIOUS 10 MINUTES OF AIR-TIME CBS. DO IT RIGHT AND GIVE PEOPLE AN OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW, DON’T HALF ASS IT JUST TO GET PEOPLE TO TUNE IN CAUSE YOU WENT AFTER THE GIAN YOU MORALLY BANKRUPT LITTLE ANTS. I PROMISE CBS isn’t doing all this for the goodness of their hearts. It’s all about ratings. I question CBS’s (and that dude’s) intentions here much more than they allude to what Apple’s are. This is not an Apple vs whomever, this is ALL of us vs Foxconn and then seeing what ALL companies contracting Foxconn are doing about this problem. There’s a reason why this article just came out now after Apple’s announced their earnings.

  • Mike Rathjen

    Incorrect analogy because in fact the US has outlawed that very scenario and it is now a Federal crime.

  • Bob Forsberg

    By any standards, anywhere in the world that picture at Foxconn above cannot be seen as demonstrating a “sweatshop” atmosphere. 

    Also, they are not Apple factories, as your headline implies. Apple subcontracts with assembly houses all over the word, based on economic and manufacturing capabilities. Citing a China labor activist and giving him any degree of credibility is in itself troubling.

  • Bob Forsberg

    Labor activist Li Qiqng of China Labor Watch might find himself flying off one of those Foxconn buildings himself some night if he doesn’t temper his lambastic comments as he strives to find utopia.

  • izibulo

    When is enough profit, ‘enough’ though? People need jobs – with the job comes responsibility and accountability. These values seem to be disappearing rapidly throughout the world. In South Africa there is a sentiment of ‘entitlement’ where the ‘previously disadvantaged’ think they should be given jobs for easy money and where responsibility and accountability don’t count. On the other side of the coin I think companies should be working profits back into the working environment to enable a worker to diversify – in the case of Asian ‘sweatshops’, allowing workers to ‘rotate’ jobs or move between departments to allow for learning and personal growth; and escape some of the boredom and mindlessness that may come from doing the same mundane job day-in and day-out.