Apple steps up labour audits, finds underage workers

Written by Reuters | San Francisco | Updated: Jan 26 2013, 08:01am hrs
Apple Inc stepped up audits of working conditions at major suppliers last year, discovering multiple cases of underage workers, discrimination and wage problems.

The iPhone and iPad maker, which relies heavily on Asian-based partners like Taiwans Foxconn Technology Group to assemble the vast majority of its iPhones and iPads, said on Thursday it conducted 393 audits, up 72% from 2011, reviewing sites where over 1.5 million workers make its gadgets.

Apple in recent years has faced accusations of building its profits on the backs of poorly treated and severely underpaid workers in China.

That criticism came to the fore around 2010, after reports of suicides at Foxconn drew attention to the long hours that migrant laborers frequently endure, often for a pittance in wages and in severely cramped living conditions.

Foxconn is the trading name of Hon Hai Precision Industry and employs 1.2 million workers across China.

Under chief executive Tim Cook, who took over from Steve Jobs in 2011, Apple has taken new steps to improve its record and boost transparency, including the extensive audits of its sprawling supply chain. Last year, it agreed to separate audits by the independent Fair Labor Association.

In an interview on Thursday, Apple senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams said the company has increased its efforts to solve two of the most challenging issues ensuring there are no under aged workers in its supply chain and limiting working hours to 60 hours a week. While child labour reflected a small percentage of the workforce, Apple is now investigating its smaller suppliers which typically supply parts to larger suppliers and hence face less oversight on such issues to bring them into compliance, sometimes even firing them.

We go deep in the supply chain to find it, Williams said. And when we do find it, we ensure that the underage workers are taken care of, the suppliers are dealt with.

In one case, Apple said it terminated its relationship with a component maker Guangdong Real Faith Pingzhou Electronics Co Ltd after discovering 74 cases of underage workers. Officials at Pingzhou Electronics could not be reached despite three telephone calls from Reuters.

Apple also discovered an employment agency that was forging documents to allow children to illegally work at the supplier. Apple reported both the supplier and the employment agency to local authorities, the company said in its latest annual report on the conditions in its supply chain.

Apple has audited small and ancillary suppliers, as well as large ones such as Koreas Samsung Electronics Co, for working conditions. It found 95% of sites audited complied with avoiding underage labour.