At the time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who died in October 2011, did not fly to the factory to personally investigate the deaths as he would had the factory been located in California. He told the fawning audience at a U.S. conference: "Foxconn is not a sweatshop" and "We're all over this." In any case, no member of management flew to China to research the tragedy as one would expect from a company with a slogan of "Every detail matters."
In 2010, 137 workers of Apple supplier Wintek were injured while using n-hexane to clean iPhone screens. In 2011, four workers were killed in two different explosions caused by aluminum dust from iPad polishing being ignited. Dust explosions are a known and preventable hazard in manufacturing, with the workers having previously complained that "the ventilation of the department is poor."
GlobalPost's expose, Silicon Sweatshops: Shattered Dreams, published in November 2009 just before the suicides, noted that factories in the Philippines, Taiwan, and China used by high-tech companies did not crack down on excessive placement fees for foreign workers, allowed brokers to retain passports of foreign workers, and looked the other way when brokers misappropriated a significant percentage of the worker's salary, essentially transforming that person into an indentured servant.
At the time, the Apple Supplier Code of Conduct stated that:
Suppliers must uphold the human rights of workers, and treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community ... Suppliers shall not use any form of forced, bonded, or indentured, or prison labor. All work must be voluntary ... Except in emergency or unusual situations, a workweek shall be restricted to 60 hours, including overtime, and workers shall take at least one day off every seven-days. All overtime shall be voluntary.
Its current Supplier Responsibility and Labor & Human Rights web pages read somewhat the same as before:
We’ve strengthened our programs to help suppliers protect student interns and other at-risk workers. We're continuing our efforts to end excessive work hours. In 2013, our suppliers achieved an average of 95 percent compliance with our maximum 60-hour workweek ... We limit workweeks to 60 hours except in unusual circumstances. And all overtime must be absolutely voluntary ... The average hours worked per week was under 50 for all employees. In 2013, we also tracked employees working at least 40 hours, and found they worked an average of 54 hours per week. Over 97 percent of all workweeks met our requirement of at least one day of rest every seven days.
However, employees are still being forced to work more than 60 hours per week. Chinese labor laws only allow 36 overtime hours per month, but workers are typically required to work 12-hour shifts -- 60 hours per week and 80 overtime hours per month for a five-day work week -- and working six or even seven days each week is common. Workers are housed in dormitories where as many as 12 workers share a modest room. Workers younger than 18 are common and treated no differently than adults in terms of working hours.
Given that Apple is the fifth-largest corporation in the world and pays virtually no corporate tax, it has plenty of money to pay its workers and give them a safe and humane working environment.
BBC News Panorama recently revisited the subject, using reporters as workers, this time investigating the factories of Pegatron (UK residents and those who use a VPN to mimic UK residency can view the video program, Apple's Broken Promises). Panorama was able to photograph workers so exhausted they took naps during their 12-hour shifts. One reporter was required to work 18 days in a row. One reporter worked as long as 16 hours in one day. Unpaid meetings both before and after work were common.
Panorama also visited the grittier end of the manufacturing process, traveling to the Indonesian island of Bangka to view the conditions of tin mines. A 12-year-old boy was seen working with his father, with him admitting that he was worried about the soil giving way and burying him.
There is no indication that Apple CEO Tim Cook intends to witness the situation for himself. Apple declined a Panorama interview, but released a statement: "We are aware of no other company doing as much as Apple to ensure fair and safe working conditions."
Next time you use an Apple product, beseech Saint Steve to grant some mercy for the Asian workers in Apple's supply chain.