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Tuesday, 02 March 2010 14:40

Apple audits suppliers, finds violations

Apple has published the results of investigations into working conditions at the plants that build the company's products. The company found violations including underage workers and mishandling of hazardous waste.

In its "Supplier Responsibility: 2010 Progress Report" (PDF), Apple has described the results of its monitoring program to ensure that its manufacturers adhere to the companies Supplier Code of Conduct.

The Code, the company says, is similar to the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition Code of Conduct, but goes further in incorporating ideas from the International Labor Organization and the Fair Labor Association.

(Apple's code is available at www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility.)

The results paint a picture not only of working conditions at Apple's suppliers, but undoubtedly conditions at plants used throughout the computer industry.

Apple audits all its final assembly plants every year, plus a sampling of component and nonproduction suppliers chosen according to a combination of risk factors.

For results of the audits, see Page 2.

In 2009, the company audited 102 facilities, bringing to 190 the number of facilities audited since 2007. The sites were located in China, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Apple's auditors double-check the information provided by the supplier with data from other sources, such as interviews with workers, as well as the results of on-site inspections of factories and associated living areas.

Any violations mean the supplier must implement a "corrective action plan that addresses not only the specific violation, but also the underlying management system needed to prevent its recurrence" and correct the violations within 90 days.

Overall, Apple reports, "annual audits of final assembly manufacturers show continued performance improvements and better working conditions."

Among 5 final assembly manufacturers, for example, the average audit score in 2007 was just over 75, while this year the same plants had an average score of 96.

Some plants were found with "core violations," however, and Apple stopped doing business with one.

For the worst offenses, see Page 3.

The auditors found 97% of the plants in compliance with "prevention of underage labor" and "solid waste management," the highest totals outside the Ethics category.

"Working hours" had the lowest compliance, at only 46%.

Nevertheless, the audits uncovered violations in 17 categories. The report doesn't make it clear whether multiple transgressions in the same category at the same plant count as a single violation or not; it also doesn't explain whether the violations were at 17 different plants or some plants had violations in more than one category.

In eight facilities, the auditors found foreign workers who had paid agency recruitment fees in excess of the legal limits. Over the past two years, Apple says, foreign workers have been reimbursed US$2.2 million for such overcharges.

The company also found three facilities that had hired 15-year-old workers, even though the minimum age in that country was 16. None of the workers were still underage at the time of the audit.

Three facilities were also dinged for hiring noncertified hazardous waste disposal companies and were told to find certified vendors.

Three other violations involved suppliers that gave the auditors falsified records, discovered through the cross-checking procedure described above. In one case, the violator had done the same thing in 2008, and based on the repeat violations Apple dropped the company as a supplier.

For final thoughts and the reaction of other companies, see Page 4.

This report is being presented in many outlets as an indictment of Apple, with headlines along the lines of "Apple admits using child labor."

Rather than an expose of bad practices by a single company, however, the report is more likely a glimpse of working conditions throughout the computer manufacturing industry.

Other companies undoubtedly deal with the same kinds of issues. In a comment to the Telegraph's article on the report, for example, a Dell employee posted that "Any reports of poor working conditions in Dell's supply chain are investigated and appropriate action is taken. We recognize responsibility to work with suppliers promoting sustainable environmental practices, the health and safety of people, and fundamental human rights and dignity. As such, Dell expects suppliers to employ the same high standards we do in our own facilities."

Pretending that Apple is somehow unique -- except perhaps for the fact that it publicized what it found -- is just a way of ignoring where the products we use every day actually come from.



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