Apple’s Progress in Human Rights Puts Onus on Competitors

Ever since recent human rights scandals in Chinese factories, Apple has made an effort to be more transparent with regard to its supply chain practices.

An article published at the end of January in the New York Times, which detailed the human costs that go into the construction of iPads, along with other articles in prominent publications, prompted an outcry among consumers, to which Apple responded with programs to help promote human rights in the supply chain.

Yet while Apple has been blazing a path toward humane treatment of overseas workers, a common theme in the tech industry seems to be repeating itself: the other technology giants are behind in following Apple’s lead.

One of the most important steps Apple took was to hire an outside agency called the Fair Labor Association to run independent audits of Apple’s supply-chain plants. In the tech industry, Apple is the first to do so, and in that regard it provides a beacon to which other tech companies should look. As part of the FLA audits, Apple agreed to provide access letters for the FLA to inspect any factory in their supply chain unannounced. The initial audits took place in February, and Auret van Heerden, the FLA’s president, said Apple’s factories and the conditions he’d observed were above par.

According to Reuters, who spoke with him after the initial audits, van Heerden said, ”The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm,” and added later, “I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory. So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. . It’s more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps.”

The audits are slated to continue throughout the year. Once shortcomings are revealed, the FLA will develop remedial programs and verify that those programs are adhered to.

Another important step Apple has taken is to closely monitor working hours and to publicly report its findings on a monthly basis. From January to February, this monthly reporting showed an improvement in the working hours for Foxconnn workers:

In our effort to end the industry practice of excessive overtime, we’re working closely with our suppliers to manage employee working hours. Weekly data collected in January 2012 on more than 500,000 workers employed by our suppliers showed 84 percent compliance with the 60-hour work week specified in our code. In February 2012, compliance with the 60-hour work week among 500,000 workers at those suppliers increased to 89 percent, with workers averaging 48 hours per week. That’s a substantial improvement over previous results, but we can do better. We will continue to share our progress by reporting this data on a monthly basis.

Apple also provides a detailed supplier responsibility report, transparently listing all the factories and the instances in which they violated policy.

In the face of all these improvements, van Heerden pointed out how other tech industry players have been reluctant to follow suit:

“We should be asking why there are still so many companies who are not disclosing their suppliers and conditions in those facilities. We cannot wait another month or year for other companies to catch up. The longer we’re in the dark, the more dangerous things become for the people who make a living by working to produce what we buy. Let’s hold all companies accountable, and not just a select few.”

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