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News from EPI Analysis of Apple Report on Working Conditions Finds Business as Usual, Not Sweeping Reforms

Apple’s own data, as well as independent investigations, depict working conditions that still routinely and systematically fail to meet Apple’s own standards, and can be fairly characterized as deplorable, a new Economic Policy Institute report finds. In Assessing the Reforms Portrayed by Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Report, Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, and Isaac Shapiro, EPI research associate, provide a detailed analysis of the latest annual report by Apple summarizing its audits of, and developments in, its supply chain.

“While Apple has made progress in some areas, the claims made by Apple in its report are often misleadingly rosy, presumably designed to distract from the serious labor rights violations that even its own data suggest remain common—and which independent reports continue to find with dismaying consistency,” said Nova. “Apple also appears to be walking away from the fundamental reforms promised as part of the Fair Labor Association process that it fully embraced two years ago. It is discouraging, if not surprising, that promises made under the pressure of intense media scrutiny were quietly jettisoned when that scrutiny abated.”

Major issues with Apple’s report include:

  • The effects of Apple’s reforms are often dubious and are overstated by the company. For example, Apple places great emphasis on its data indicating that fewer workers in its supply chain are working more than 60 hours per week, yet ignores altogether the fact that workweeks at its Chinese factories still consistently break Chinese law (which Apple has repeatedly pledged to uphold). The average work week Apple reports still exceeds, by a substantial margin, the 49-hour limit imposed by Chinese law.  In another example, Apple reports 99 percent compliance by its suppliers when it comes to “freedom of association” when such freedom is a legal and practical impossibility in China.
  • Apple’s own data show that labor rights violations remain common and that there has been no overall progress when it comes to worker health and safety.  Apple’s own audits show that 27 percent of supplier practices are not in compliance with juvenile worker protections; 28 percent are not in compliance with occupational injury protections; and 30 percent are not in compliance with ergonomic standards. In the health and safety area, overall non-compliance is 23 percent, which is essentially the same level as in 2009, when it was 24 percent.
  • Apple has apparently walked away from key reforms promised as part of the FLA process. In the wake of media criticism of the treatment of workers in its supply chain, especially at its largest supplier, Foxconn, Apple publicly recommitted itself more than two years ago to advancing fundamental reforms, this time through its new membership in the FLA. Since then, however, the company (in its latest report and previously) and the FLA have largely gone silent regarding certain crucial commitments they made, including promises to boost wages to offset any reductions in hours worked and to pay back wages to workers who had engaged in uncompensated overtime.
  • Apple’s self-regulatory approach raises independence and accuracy concerns; independent reports continue to paint a far more troubling picture of Apple’s supply chain. Apple’s audits are carried out by Apple itself, and the information contained in them is reported selectively, by Apple. Apple’s annual supplier responsibility reports—which draw on these audit reports to broadly characterize conditions in the supply chain—should thus be treated with ample caution, especially given the failed history of industry-controlled factory auditing programs as well as findings from independent investigators that are far worse than those portrayed by Apple.  For instance, a 2013 investigation by China Labor Watch of Apple’s second largest supplier found 17 basic areas where working conditions failed to meet Apple’s code of conduct.
  • There has been progress in some areas. As examples, working hours, though still well in excess of legal limits, have apparently been reduced significantly. Apple now discloses the names and locations of its supplier factories—information no other major electronics brand provides—and Apple released, in this year’s supplier responsibility report, unusually detailed “Supplier Responsibility Standards,” which lay out Apple’s official expectations concerning suppliers’ labor practices. While compliance is very much in question, access to the detailed requirements is of use to the public and to workers’ rights advocates.

“Two years after promising fundamental changes for workers in its supply chain, what Apple has delivered is more business-as-usual than sweeping reform,” said Shapiro.  “Sadly, this means labor rights abuses in Apple’s supply chain are ongoing and commonplace.”