Apple’s Alleged Labor Violations: Appalling or Inaccurate?

The New York Times released a damning report on January 25, 2012 about labor conditions in Chinese factories owned by Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier of products like iPhones and iPads. The report focuses on the multiple violations present in Foxconn factories including involuntary labor, underage labor, and dangerous working conditions. Apple claims it has tried to stay on top of these labor violations by performing numerous audits of Foxconn as well demanding Foxconn stop these treacherous labor practices.

Workers, however, tell a different story. They claim that Foxconn is only concerned with keeping Apple happy and furthermore, that Apple does not really care. Workers claim some of them are packed into tiny apartments, forced to work more than 60 hours per week, and that some of the worker suicides that plagued the factory last year were results of the terrible working conditions. The New York Times also interviewed a former executive of Apple who agrees with the workers’ claims. This former executive claims that even though Apple has an internal code of conduct for its suppliers to follow, many of the supplier violations are left unaddressed.

This report raises a moral question about whether customers’ Apple products are worth the abuse of workers in China. This question has been raised for several years regarding many different companies and their products. Hershey’s for example has come under fire from human rights group for getting its chocolate from suppliers who used human trafficking victims to collect the cocoa. The Gap found itself in a similar embarrassing situation when it was reported that the company allowed its suppliers to use forced child labor to collect cotton for its clothing.

There are laws on the books in the United States protecting domestic workers from labor abuses. But what are the repercussions for these domestic companies that buy from foreign suppliers who violate such labor standards? Under US law, companies like Apple are not liable for what their suppliers do. The suppliers are under the jurisdiction of whatever country they are based in, so a company like Foxconn can commit labor violations in places like China where such practices are unfortunately common. Should there be a financial penalty for companies like Apple who keep buying from violators? Under the free market system, it is up to the consumer to punish the companies for such acts. But given the record high profit Apple made last quarter, consumers either do not know about the problems or simply love their new iPads more.

You can read the whole NYTimes report here.