Apple’s own data reveal 120,000 supply-chain employees worked excessive hours in November

To its credit, Apple is now posting monthly information tracking the extent to which employees in its supply chain are working less than its standard of 60 hours per week. The introductory language to this information states: “Ending the industry practice of excessive overtime is a top priority for Apple in 2012.” The accompanying graph itself, however, contains data from Jan. 2012 through Nov. 2012 and suggests otherwise. Not only has Apple failed to end this practice, but progress has significantly reversed in recent months.

Apple’s code of supplier conduct sets a maximum work week of 60 hours, with an exception clause, discussed below. Eyeballing Apple’s graph indicates (Apple only provides a specific number for November, so visual approximation is necessary):

  • In Jan. 2012, about 16 percent of the workers in Apple’s supply chain worked more hours than Apple’s maximum standard. This proportion diminished through August, when approximately 3 percent of these workers had work weeks that exceeded this standard.
  • But the proportion of workers meeting the standard dropped precipitously since then, presumably reflecting the increased intensity of work to produce and meet iPhone 5 demand.
  • In November, 12 percent of the workers in Apple’s supply chain that are being tracked worked more than the 60-hour standard. This was the worst monthly compliance rate of the year, with the exception of January. More than one million workers are being tracked by Apple, so the 12 percent translates to more than 120,000 workers in their supply chain working excessive hours. 

This evidence is consistent with independent reports on production at Apple. These reports found that as Apple ramped up its iPhone production, workers were again working overtime hours that violated Apple’s 60-hour standard. (See, for example, this report by the Hong Kong group SACOM.) These findings are contrary to the impression created by the interim report of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) in August, which claimed that at least at Apple’s main supplier Foxconn, no employees engaged in Apple production were working more than 60 hours a week.

Apple may very well respond that compliance has fallen recently, but that it is a peak period in which workers have chosen to work more hours voluntarily. This is the exception in Apple’s code. Apple states: “In limited peak periods, we allow work beyond the 60 hour limit for those employees that volunteer to do so.” Apple’s monthly report does not include information on the degree to which compliance failures are “voluntary” or not, so it is impossible to accurately assess the amount of compliance failures Apple might find reasonable. But beyond the basic response that such an exception is unwarranted, that it creates a vague loophole that could lead to rampant labor rights violations, several other considerations should make one skeptical of this potential Apple argument.

  • In September, October, and November, 10 to 12 percent of supply chain employees worked excessive hours. Apple said employees could only voluntarily work excessive hours for “limited peak periods.” Three months of significant non-compliance, and counting, suggests more than a short, limited period.
  • In its interim report, the FLA touted fully meeting the 60-hour work standard as a major accomplishment. The FLA did not suggest that it was only necessary to meet this standard in non-peak periods, a statement which would have undercut its rosy view of progress at Foxconn.
  • Independent investigators report that workers are still being coerced to work despite their objections. These violations include forced student labor, forced overtime, and forced missed time for a national holiday; Scott Nova and I summarized these violations in a report last fall. (It is unclear how much of this forced labor leads to excessive overtime.) Such coercion is consistent with the workplace relationships that characterize Apple suppliers overseas; workers are often at the mercy of the dictates of their employer.
  • In China, where many of Apple’s suppliers are located, the work week standard is more stringent than Apple’s. Chinese law states that employees can only work 49 hours a week. So even when the workloads of Apple’s factory workers in China meet the 60-hour standard, they still frequently exceed the level allowed by Chinese law. Apple has indicated that it will come into compliance with Chinese law in July 2013, but it is far from certain that goal will be achieved.

Apple’s transparency in this area is appreciated, and Apple’s repeated statements that it will end excessive work hours establish an important standard to be met. But ultimately it is neither Apple’s transparency nor its promises that matter; what matters is whether the actual treatment of the factory workers making Apple products is improved. Apple’s own information suggests that, promises notwithstanding, 120,000 workers making its products are still working excessive hours.

For more information and updates on the treatment of the factory workers making Apple products, please visit the new website