Apple Releases New Supplier Responsibility Report

Last month, a group of Chinese environmental organizations criticised Apple for the excessive secrecy surrounding its supply chain, and for its uncooperative response to requests for information. The company’s newly released 2011 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report (PDF), however, pledges greater cooperation with Chinese NGOs in the future:

Collaborate with industry groups and NGOs in China to address key issues— such as working hours, underage labor, and employee well-being—through root cause analysis, more aggressive audits, stronger requirements for corrective and preventive actions, and expanded supplier training and assistance.

Elsewhere, the report mentions existing arrangements with NGOs Verité and the Fair Labor Association, and with independent experts in dealing with the Foxconn suicides. It remains to be seen how far greater involvement of outsiders in Apple’s auditing will address concerns about lack of independent verification.

The report covers several China-related issues in some detail: n-hexane poisoning at Wintek, suicides at Foxconn, and the employment of underage workers by a number of suppliers. On underage labour:

To address this difficult scenario, we intensified our search for underage labor in 2010, interviewing more workers and further scrutinizing recruiting practices, employment records, and worker IDs, especially where third-party labor agencies and schools were involved. Our audits of 127 facilities revealed ten Chinese factories that had hired workers under the age of 16 years, the minimum age for employment in China ….

Of the ten facilities with underage labor violations, we found one that had hired a much larger number of underage workers—a total of 42. In addition, we determined that management had chosen to overlook the issue and was not committed to addressing the problem. Based on the poor likelihood of improvement, we terminated business with the facility. During our investigation, we also discovered that the vocational school involved in hiring the underage workers had falsified student IDs and threatened retaliation against students who revealed their ages during our audits. We reported the school to appropriate authorities in the Chinese government.

On the infamous string of suicides at Foxconn:

Like many of our customers and others around the world, we were disturbed and deeply saddened to learn that factory workers were taking their own lives at the Shenzhen facility of Foxconn.

Recognizing that we would need additional expertise to help prevent further tragedies, we launched an international search for the most knowledgeable suicide prevention specialists—particularly those with experience in China— and asked them to advise Apple and Foxconn.

Apple … commissioned an independent review by a broader team of suicide prevention experts. This team was asked to conduct a deeper investigation into the suicides, evaluate Foxconn’s response, and recommend strategies for supporting workers’ mental health in the future.

And on the Wintek case:

In 2010, we learned that 137 workers at the Suzhou facility of Wintek, one of Apple’s suppliers, had suffered adverse health effects following exposure to n-hexane, a chemical in cleaning agents used in some manufacturing processes. We discovered that the factory had reconfigured operations without also changing their ventilation system. Apple considered this series of incidents to be a core violation for worker endangerment.

We required Wintek to stop using n-hexane and to provide evidence that they had removed the chemical from their production lines. In addition, Apple required them to fix their ventilation system. Since these changes, no new workers have suffered difficulties from chemical exposure.

The apparent frankness of the report stands in contrast with Apple’s evasive response when the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs raised the Wintek case with them last year. The company refused to confirm or deny any business relationship with Lianjian (a Wintek subsidiary), asking that the NGO produce evidence that such a relationship existed.