2013-01-28

Co.Exist

Apple's Supply Chain Still Has Issues With Underage Workers

The company has been increasingly trying to clean up the labor and environmental issues associated with making its products. But the latest revelations show that a giant company with such a sweeping international supply chain can’t control everything.

After years of trying to eradicate child labor from its supply chain, Apple is still struggling. A new internal audit reveals that there were 106 incidents of child labor at its facilities in 2012 alone.

We first wrote about Apple’s issues with underage workers in its supply chain in 2010, when the company reported multiple violations in its audit of 102 facilities, including component suppliers, mines, and ore processors. Clearly, the problem isn’t easy to get rid of—it almost seems like an endless game of Whac-a-Mole. In its 2011 Supplier Responsibility Report, Apple describes some of the issues it faces: "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."

In its latest report, Apple found children working at 11 factories in its supply chain. And, unsurprisingly, many of the kids were using false identity documents. Apple replied by forcing the suppliers to send their underage employees back to school, where their education is paid for by the company’s Child Labor Remediation program.

Apple also implemented a new underage labor prevention standard, requiring more detailed documentation, age verification, and better communication of labor policies with recruiters and suppliers. This past year, Apple broke off a relationship with one of its suppliers for hiring a high number of underage workers—something that other suppliers will perhaps take to heart.

Every step Apple takes in China is analyzed closely—as it should be for the world’s most valuable company. The company has had its share of supply chain problems (including egregious environmental violations documented by Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun), but it’s not as if Apple’s problems exist in a vacuum. They’re endemic in the electronics industry as a whole. The only difference is Apple’s size and stature.

As Ma Jun explained to us in an interview on the company’s environmental supply chain issues: "… the change of Apple is very, very important because they are considered to be not just the largest but the most successful. And if they simply say, 'I made a policy not to talk, not to disclose,' then they would be freed from all this public scrutiny. We already feel that some other companies sometimes check with us that if [Apple’s position] could be tolerated, then why should they spend all these resources to try to do better?"

Apple has the opportunity to lead the charge on any number of issues, including underage labor. If the company can do an even better job of cleaning up its supply chain, other electronics giants will at least pay attention.

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