International commerce can be a real headache. It can be especially vexing when your head offices are in California, your primary manufacturers are in China, and environmental watchdogs are everywhere.
Such is the lesson that Apple is learning these days, as it tries to navigate the sticky waters of high-speed manufacturing in developing countries, where prices may be cheap, but laws and employment customs aren’t necessarily in sync with the expectations of its North American customer base.
The problem that seems to have Apple’s management stymied however is that it’s an issue that, well, just doesn’t seem to go away.
Last year Apple found that a contractor it used to manufacture components for the iPhone was under the scrutiny of labor rights organization China Labor Watch. The group tallied 86 labor violations at Pegatron facilities, including environmental pollution, unsatisfactory working conditions and the use of underage workers.
They also found evidence of environmental violations that forced China to investigate the matter. Apple eventually diversified some of the work to Catcher (Foxconn).
But Foxconn is less than a shining paragon of human rights, say activists, who point out that one of the company’s factories was the site of a massive workers’ protest in 2012.
This year, CLW and Green America released a report that suggests that while labor conditions are a bit better at the Catcher plant than last year (only 22 problems), an undercover investigator still found evidence of labor and environmental violations. The organizations backed up the research with personal interviews of some 100 plant workers.
The endemic PR problem is a big concern for Apple – or should be. In 2011 a blast at a Foxconn plant that manufactured Apple products killed two workers and injured 10. The same year, a consortium of advocacy groups rated Apple as among the worst for dealing with workers’ conditions and labor rights.
And yet, Apple seems to have a pretty good sense of the debacle industrial pollution and ongoing labor rights violations cause when it comes to its reputation. Each time that the flag has been raised, critics note, Apple has taken the initiative to investigate and hastily fix the noted problems.
And as we said earlier, it isn’t easy to keep the finger on the pulse of international contractors or companies that appear to have your best corporate interests at heart. Plenty of American enterprises have been caught unaware by the policies or follies of their overseas contractors who underestimate the importance of labor, environmental or animal rights.
Still, three to four years running, the American tech company still appears to be trying to improve its corporate social responsibility (CSR) record in China. And at a time when things like environmental pollution, suicides and poor labor conditions are more likely to garner immediate media attention than cheap phones, nothing could be more pressing to a global enterprise like Apple.
Image credit: Annette Bernhardt
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.