Apple Must Ask Why Good Help Is So Hard to Find

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Apple Inc.’s decision to suspend new business with a key supplier highlights just how hard it is for the world’s biggest tech company to find partners that are both reliable and do the right thing by their workers. The problem may be of its own making.

Pegatron Corp. won’t get any new contracts after the Taipei-based company was found to have committed labor violations related to its student workers’ program at factories in China. According to Apple, some were misclassified and allowed to do night shifts and overtime, in contravention of the Cupertino-based company’s rules, Bloomberg News reported

Its statement is telling:

We have a rigorous review and approval process for any student worker program, which ensures the intern’s work is related to their major and prohibits overtime or night shifts

The term student worker program should ring immediate alarm bells for anyone who cares about labor rights. Getting college or vocational students to work factory production lines is an accepted practice in China that foreign clients including Apple and Samsung Electronics Co. have signed onto for years. Apple at least asks its manufacturing partners to ensure that the work relates to their studies. Under the pressure to churn out product, though, such programs are vulnerable to abuse.

Pegatron said it fired the manager responsible, whom it said “went to extraordinary lengths to evade our oversight mechanisms.” Still, we need to question what conditions incentivized employees to work so hard to not only break Apple’s labor code, but also make such efforts to cover their tracks.

This isn’t the first time Pegatron has appeared in print alongside allegations of labor violations. As far back as 2014, China Labor Watch named the company, alongside Catcher Technology Co., Jabil Inc. and Foxconn Technology Group, for failing to undertake corrective action related to labor and safety standards. 

Apple attracts the most criticism in the technology industry over labor and environmental standards. This partly reflects ever stricter rules that the company has imposed on its supply-chain partners, the results of which Apple publicizes in its annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Report. 

Critics may argue that this is a marketing exercise designed to make consumers feel more comfortable about buying shiny gadgets produced by cheap labor — which helped to yield $57 billion of profit for Apple last year. Yet incidents like this show that for all its talent and money, the U.S. company doesn’t control its suppliers as much as it might wish.

For example, it continues to find workers who were forced to pay recruitment fees to get a job — a contravention of its standards. Apple repaid $1.3 million to 462 partner employees last year, according to its supplier report. In fact, the iPhone maker has booted 145 companies from its supply chain over the past decade for failing to meet its standards. In 2019 alone, Apple discovered 10 core violations related to working hours. 

Even at Foxconn, one of its most important and longest-standing assemblers, allegations have surfaced of questionable practices.

Among them, according to a report last month by The Information, Foxconn overquoted the number of workers it needed to build its iPad Pro, part of an effort to pad the supplier’s profit margins. It also supposedly used Apple-owned equipment for work with other clients, a big no-no in the industry, and gave employees of Alphabet Inc.’s Google a tour of a factory used to make MacBook parts — a contravention of Apple’s security protocols, The Information reported. Foxconn denied all the allegations. 

Yet having enunciated its standards so clearly, Apple needs to ask why violations keep happening. The drumbeat of infractions is less a testament to the company’s determination to clean up its supply chain than a reflection of the conditions that continue to prevail.

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.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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