Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Apple Supplier Responsibility Report 2014

When the issue of working conditions for Apple’s contractor factories is raised, there are often three threads of rebuttal:

  1. These are contractors, and Apple shouldn’t wholly be held responsible.
  2. Similarly, other companies are using these factories. Or they may be using other factories where the conditions may be worse.
  3. In other countries, laws and expectations are different.

I completely understand the first point, but I disagree: Apple is one of the biggest companies in the world, and they absolutely have the power to make necessary changes. It doesn’t come without its challenges, though: there are complex political issues surrounding how much influence Western companies can exert. But with Apple’s growing presence in China and their focus on the country, perhaps they can make inroads where other companies were unable.

With regard to the second point, it’s true that Apple is the only major technology company — hell, one of the only companies of any kind — that regularly releases such a comprehensive and revealing report on a regular basis. The 2014 report (PDF) shows a significant improvement over 2013 (also a PDF): more audits were conducted, facilities increasingly complied with working hours restrictions, and more factory workers attended higher education programs.

But while Apple does more than anyone else to ensure contract employees are being treated respectfully and fairly, it’s hard to reconcile this report with the stories of poor working conditions that pop up in the news regularly. Of course, the negativity of these experiences is what is deemed newsworthy. But it seems as though conditions are not as good as they should be, despite Apple’s documented efforts. And while Apple is absolutely the focus of many of these reports — perhaps to an unfair or egregious extent — due to their size and image, it is this size and image that should give them greater leverage (see above).

Finally, while expectations of labour conditions differ country-to-country, there are certain obligations Apple arguably should have as a company representing the United States. I think that’s where my discomfort mostly comes from: the cultural divide is strong, but it doesn’t preclude a more hospitable working environment.