Activist groups accuse Apple of new labor violations

A new report compiled from findings conducted by an undercover investigation at a factory that makes parts for Apple products has accused an Apple supplier of labor violations. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
An Apple employee demonstrates an iPad Mini in San Francisco

Apple has been accused of poor and unsafe working conditions at one of its factories in China. These allegations come amid cybersecurity concerns raised by an apparent iCloud hack that spread celebrity photos around the web and increasing anticipation for new products expected to be announced next week.

A 25-page report compiled by the activist groups Green America and China Labor Watch, which have both previously targeted Apple for labor violations, says that a factory in the eastern Chinese city of Suqian owned by the Taiwanese company Catcher Technology has violated Chinese labor laws in addition to violating policies put in place by Apple and Catcher. 

The report was assembled by an investigator who worked at the factory, which manufactures metal casings for several electronics companies. Apple parts made at the factory include components used in iPhone and iPad products. 

After an undercover investigation undertaken in 2013 by China Labor Watch found that labor violations at the Suqian factory included "excessive overtime work, long work shifts while standing, insufficient social insurance, a lack of occupational safety training and heavy dust in the workplace," the group brought its findings to Apple, which said it would work with Catcher Technology to carry out reforms.

But subsequent investigations 16 months after the initial investigations found that working conditions had not improved and, in some cases, had worsened, the report said. 

The 22 labor violations documented by the report include discriminatory hiring practices, insufficient safety training, and a lack of protective equipment provided to workers handling toxic chemicals. Working overtime is mandatory for all workers, the report states, noting that workers were forced to work up to 100 hours of overtime per month, roughly three times the 36-hour limit prescribed by Chinese law. Moreover, workers were not receiving the social insurance payments that are required in China, according to the report. 

In an e-mailed statement to Reuters, Catcher stated that it is "deeply concerned about the claims made by China Labor Watch, and we take the report very seriously. We are committed to following Apple's supplier code of conduct and will investigate thoroughly."

Apple told Reuters in a statement that Catcher has responded to safety inspections and adequately implemented safety measures in its factory. 

"As a result of our quarterly fire-safety inspections, the most recent of which happened last week, Catcher has made same-day repairs of broken and expired fire extinguishers, unblocked corridors and fire exits, and added missing emergency exit signs," the statement said. 

Apple further noted in a statement to The New York Times that a recent audit of the Suqian factory had "found some concrete areas for improvement in Catcher’s operations, and we worked with Catcher to develop a corrective action plan."

Following the release of the report, Apple says it has sent a team to investigate operations at the factory as opposed to waiting until next month for a follow-up visit as was previously planned. 

China continues to be Apple's largest source of suppliers in addition to being the place where nearly all Apple products are assembled. 

But factory safety for workers assembling Apple products has come under close scrutiny in recent years. Around 150 Chinese workers at Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer for numerous companies including Apple, Nintendo, and Sony, threatened to commit suicide two years ago unless their working conditions were improved. 

Earlier this year, an Apple audit uncovered human rights violations at different levels of its supply chain, including abuses of migrant laborers and the use of underage workers, according to Bloomberg. In that episode Apple said it was attempting to improve working conditions at its factories as well as remove the use of conflict minerals in its supply chain.

Last month, following health and safety inspections of 22 Apple facilities around the world, Apple announced it would cease use of two chemicals used in the final assembly of the iPhone and iPad that are potentially hazardous to the workers who manufacture the products. That investigation was also spurred by a petition from China Labor Watch and Green America.

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