updated 11:30 pm EST, Wed January 25, 2012
Apple has internal clash over China factories
Apple has faced both internal tension over as well as misleading statements from its Chinese suppliers, an in-depth investigation has uncovered. Focusing primarily on Foxconn, the New York Times spoke to numerous current and former Apple executives who said that, while there were improvements in the years since Apple began auditing factories, the company has so far stopped short of a hardline approach that would get a supplier like Foxconn to change.
One of the executives noted that Apple was "trying really hard" to improve the situation, but that many would be "really disturbed" by the conditions of the contractor factories.
Publicly, Apple's yearly audit reports insist on fixes and threaten a switch of suppliers if conditions don't get better, but the company may effectively be held hostage by the nature of its business. Very few alternatives exist to Foxconn, and choosing a new supplier would be too expensive and involved, some veterans explained. Notions that Apple would escape these conditions by switching suppliers have separately been called into doubt.
Apple and other companies also faced the contradictions of what a manufacturer like Foxconn said and showed versus what actually happened. Although Foxconn insists that it treats workers well, and Apple has its own limits on working hours, age, and conditions, investigations and workers themselves have repeatedly reported excessive overtime, underage workers, and unfair treatment such as withholding pay to punish allegedly bad behavior.
The safety of conditions has been called into question with numerous accidents at the plants. In the past, Foxconn has been accused of weaseling out of promises to improve conditions and only began taking issues like corporate accountability hotlines seriously after suicides picked up. Foxconn has been making strides in recent months for increasing pay, although that doesn't affect the hours and working conditions most are concerned about.
Apple has been docked for reportedly pushing too hard on price cuts for suppliers like Wintek, which may cut corners on safety to meet targets. Its determination to keep supplier associations secret may have also backfired: even though it now discloses its 156 direct suppliers, it doesn't mention indirect suppliers and often blocks access to outside investigators in the fear that they'll leak its product strategy.
"There is a genuine, companywide commitment to the code of conduct," one past Apple executive said. "But taking it to the next level and creating real change conflicts with secrecy and business goals, and so there’s only so far we can go."
As the article mentions at times, and contrary to stereotypes, Apple isn't the only customer of Foxconn. Dell, HP, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nokia, Sony, and others also source hardware from Foxconn and share the same problems apart from Apple's sheer scale. Improving working conditions in Chinese factories is a common issue, and for many boycotting Apple would still involve using a product made in the same conditions if they want to use technology at all.