In response to a New York Times report about poor worker safety, last week Apple CEO Tim Cook sent his employees an internal memo stating that the company is a safety leader and would never, "stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain." However, a representative with the Hong Kong-based Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), one of the organizations quoted extensively in the Times' piece, said that Apple inspectors visited plants with serious safety problems, and they were not corrected until disaster struck.
According to SACOM Project Officer Debby Chan, Apple has a history of failing to address or being slow to disclose safety violations at its suppliers' factories. "Apple staff know very well what's going on at their suppliers. Yet, it is not the agenda of Apple to fix the problems," she said.
According to Apple's Supplier Responsibility website, the company has made an effort to improve worker safety at its suppliers' factories. In fact, Apple began investigating its suppliers' labor practices in 2007, performing 39 audits that year and increasing to an all-time high of 229 audits in 2011.
Still, Chan said that Apple took over 7 months to disclose the cause of a May 2011 explosion at Foxconn's Chengdu plant that killed 4 workers and injured 18 when aluminum dust caused a fire on the iPad production line. She also claims that Apple inspectors had visited the plant and must have seen the poor safety conditions, but didn't force Foxconn to correct them until after the accident occurred.
"According to some Foxconn workers in Chengdu, they observed the presence of Apple's representatives on the shop floor. A former manager at Foxconn also confirmed that Apple had representatives stationed in the factories to examine the quality and productivity of the products," she said.
Following the explosion, Apple said it instituted several new safety measures in an effort to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future. "Working closely with external experts, Apple audited all suppliers handling aluminum dust and put stronger precautionary measures in place before restarting production," a statement on the company's website reads. Safety enhancements include improved ventilation requirements, requiring suppliers to use explosive-proof vacuums, and ensuring that fire extinguishers are available to handle metal fires.
Chan also pointed to the 2009 poisoning of 147 workers at one of Apple's display manufacturers, Wintek, and said that it went unreported until Apple released its 2011 supplier responsibility report, even though poisoned workers wrote three letters to then-CEO Steve Jobs. She said she went to Apple's Cupertino campus in June 2011, but was turned away when she asked to meet with an executive to discuss safety issues.
Chan contends that the changes Apple has made in dealing with suppliers - disclosing its suppliers list, joining the Fair Labor Organization, etc. - would not have occurred if it weren't for public pressure put on the company and she urged consumers to demand more action.
"Without pressure from the public, especially consumers, Apple would not join the FLA and issue a statement in response to accusations of labor rights violations," she said. "Therefore, consumers can contribute to better working conditions for the production workers."
Apple is not the only electronics manufacturer to use Foxconn, but according to Chan, others have been more responsive to her group's concerns. She said SACOM has met with HP and Nokia to discuss working conditions at the plants.
Reached for comment, representatives for HP said the company, "takes seriously the challenge of raising social and environmental responsibility standards in our supply chain and investigate any allegations of non-conformance to our supplier conduct code."
Company reps further stated that HP, "has been auditing social and environmental responsibility performance in our supply chain since 2005 and to date we have conducted over 750 audits in supplier facilities around the world with an increasing number of our audits verified by third-party monitoring organizations."
For its part, Apple says that its new relationship with the FLA will provide "a level of transparency and independent oversight that is unmatched in our industry" as FLA reps will be granted access to Apple suppliers' facilities. Meanwhile, the company continues to increase its own audits each year. On its website, the company states that it has enlisted the help of internationally recognized experts to help identify issues with manufacturing practices at its suppliers' factories.
"When we discover a problem — either during an audit or through one of Apple’s many onsite employees — we require immediate correction, and we look for ways to expand safety procedures and practices in all similar facilities. This way, we go beyond industry standards to improve health and safety across our supply chain," the site says.