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Apple accused of ignoring 'human cost' of product manufacture

New York Times article says significant problems remain in Apple's supply chain

Apple has been accused of 'ignoring the human cost' of its product manufacturing chain in a new report published this week.

A New York Times article, following up on the article published last weekend that explained why Apple chooses to manufacture its products outside the US, quotes former Apple staff and contractors who accuse the company of being complicit to worker abuse.

"Apple never cared about anything other than increasing product quality and decreasing production cost. "Workers' welfare has nothing to do with their interests," said Li Mingqi, a former employee of Foxconn Technology, who is suing Foxconn over his dismissal.

Li helped manage the Chengdu factory where an explosion occurred in May of last year. The explosion killed three workers and injured scores more. Another fire occured at a Foxconn plant in Yantai in September, then in September there was an explosion at a plant belonging to another of Apple's manufacturing partners, Pegatron, which injured 61 workers.

A former Apple executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times: "We've known about labour abuses in some factories for four years, and they're still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn't have another choice."

Though safety in plants owned by Apple suppliers (the article does point out that similar criticisms have been made about supply partners for Dell, HP, IBM, Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony and Toshiba) is the main focus of the article, there are more general points raised about working conditions and the hours staff have to work.

"Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple's products, and the company's suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors," the article asserts.

Earlier this month Apple released its annual Supplier Responsibility report, in which the company claimed that it had found 'significantly fewer cases of underage labour' among its suppliers, which it also broke with tradition and named.

Apple said in the report that it broadened its age verification program, which aims to stop underage labour among its suppliers. As a result, the company reported improvements in supplier hiring practices, with cases of underage labour down significantly.

The report also disclosed a total of six active and 13 historical instances of underage labour at five facilities; Apple required those suppliers to improve labor recruitment practices and support underage workers going back to school. The audits found no cases of underage labor at the suppliers responsible for final assembly of Apple's products.

However, another Apple executive who was quoted anonymously said: "You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. Right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China."

The New York Times report points to the fact that this issue has caused an "unresolved tension" in the company, with other executives uneasy about the working conditions, but unwilling to put relationships with suppliers such as Foxconn - which manufactures 40 percent of the world's electronic devices, it is reckoned - in jeopardy by making such demands.

However, the eyes of the world are firmly on the company after its record-breaking financial results for the fiscal 2012 first quarter, and there is likely to be plenty more flak heading in Apple's direction no matter what steps it takes.


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