Apple Deserves Kudos for Doing Right by Workers

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’ve been quite harsh toward Apple Inc. for a long time. Having covered the company for close to 15 years, first as a reporter and now a columnist, I’ve spent much time researching and writing about its supply chain and the myriad problems within.

Today, though, it’s time to give credit where it’s due.

Two of my major beefs with Apple relate to the issues of bonded and underage labor. In the first instance, employees working for the iPhone maker’s suppliers are required to pay upfront fees just to secure a job. This money is usually paid to recruitment agencies. The second is self-explanatory.

Both problems have almost been stamped out. According to the company’s annual Supplier Responsibility Report, just two cases of bonded labor were found last year, involving 287 employees. That’s too many, to be sure, but it’s incredible progress compared with two years ago, when 10 violations were uncovered. By employee numbers, it’s an 82 percent improvement from last year alone.

Apple Deserves Kudos for Doing Right by Workers

As for underage labor, just one case was uncovered, versus three a year prior. While even one is too many, cases of juveniles slipping into supplier factories are often a result of employees themselves faking documentation.

It's healthy to remain skeptical about data produced by the company in question, yet for over a decade these reports have outlined many of Apple's failings in addition to its successes.

A third area of concern, excessive work hours, remains the single largest cause of demerits for suppliers in Apple’s assessment of labor and human rights. That said, supplier compliance hit 96 percent last year while cases of falsified working-hours data fell to 24 from 38.

Apple Deserves Kudos for Doing Right by Workers

Overtime is a tricky one for Apple and its manufacturers to deal with because quite often employees want to work excessive hours to get more pay. This is among the reasons why Foxconn Technology Group handed out massive pay rises eight years ago, allowing people to work less for the same wage. In an interesting twist, that spurred staff to work even more, according to anecdotes I came across, because the higher salary boosted the economic incentive to put in extra hours.

Apple Deserves Kudos for Doing Right by Workers

Skeptics will note that all is not perfect in the electronics supply chain. Just a year ago I expressed my dismay at Apple’s inability to rein in some wayward suppliers that were providing unsafe working conditions. I suspect we’ll see more anecdotes, like those dug up by Bloomberg News last year involving Catcher Technology Co.

And you can be sure that I’ll be holding Apple’s feet to the fire with regard to labor conditions.

But for now the company deserves kudos for the gains it has made, and its commitment to keep doing better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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