Today in Apple history: iPhone factory deaths spark investigation

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Foxconn
Tim Cook visiting one of Apple's factories in China.
Photo: Apple

December 11: Today in Apple history: iPhone factory deaths spark investigation December 11, 2013: A Chinese labor rights group calls on Apple to investigate the deaths of several workers at a Shanghai factory run by iPhone manufacturer Pegatron.

Most controversially, one of the dead workers is just 15 years old. The underage worker reportedly succumbed to pneumonia after working extremely long hours on the iPhone 5c production line.

Working conditions in iPhone factories

Poor working conditions inside Chinese factories came to light after Apple started its meteoric rise in the 2000s. Apple is far from the only tech company to have its products made in China. However, Cupertino’s high visibility, and propensity for casting itself as a “force for good” in tech, means the company is often singled out in this area.

Much of the time, the company named alongside Apple was supplier Foxconn. After a number of workers died at Foxconn factories, Apple was criticized heavily in the media. Steve Jobs made things worse with comments that were sometimes construed as uncaring, such as telling interviewers that the factories were actually “pretty nice.”

The Pegatron story in 2013 showed that the problem extended beyond Foxconn. The 15-year-old worker who died, Shi Zhaokun, secured a job at a Pegatron factory using a fake ID that claimed he was 20. In his first month at the company, he reportedly broke overtime laws by working upward of 280 hours. He clocked 79 hours in his first week alone.

Apple later revealed that it sent a medical team to the Pegatron facility. The experts determined that Shi’s death was not connected to working conditions. “Last month we sent independent medical experts from the U.S. and China to conduct an investigation of the factory,” Apple said in a statement. “While they have found no evidence of any link to working conditions there, we realize that is of little comfort to the families who have lost their loved ones. Apple has a long-standing commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace for every worker in our supply chain, and we have a team working with Pegatron at their facility to ensure that conditions meet our high standards.”

Ongoing challenges for Apple in China

In the aftermath of the Pegatron accusations, the company began employing facial recognition technology to screen for possible underage workers. It also made sure that applicants for production line jobs had their government-issued IDs checked for authenticity. Workers’ faces got matched to their ID photos using AI software.

Apple, meanwhile, ramped up its efforts in the supply chain. As detailed in reports on worker conditions over the past few years, Apple achieved around 95 percent compliance with enforcing a maximum 60-hour work week for people in its supply chain. The company also has taken steps to reduce the hiring of underage workers.

Nevertheless, such problems do occasionally recur. Recently, Apple admitted that some students worked illegal overtime at Foxconn building the iPhone X.

It’s a big challenge, and one that Apple and its suppliers need to continue to address.