Just recently a documentary was aired here in the UK which caused something of a stir. It talked of questionable labour practices amongst Apple’s supply chain for the iPhone and iMac products. Being in the UK, I watched it and was somewhat horrified by what I witnessed but, when talking to other UTB members it struck me just how few of you in the outside world may actually get to see the broadcast. For copyright reasons we cannot rip the video and place it here but, armed with my trusty Z30 and the ability to screenshot I am going to give you the best synopsis that I can.
Why? Because, when the documentary was reported on I was shocked at the defence used by those who would act as apologists for the company. The consensus, whether inside (where they had seen it) the UK or outside (where they obviously hadn’t) was ‘So what? You think this doesn’t happen with other company’s?’
Well, two things.
1) The documentary was entitled ‘Apple’s Broken Promises’. Not Samsungs, or BlackBerry’s or LG’s or Sony’s or anyone else’s for that matter. Apple’s.
2) Either way, for reasons you are about to witness, that doesn’t make it right.
Before we start it’s important to note that the BBC is funded by a combination of us, the populace of Britain and everyone else buying in their programming. There are no advertisements on the BBC here in the UK. That makes them immune to threats of a lack of advertising support (although not of legal action of which none, at the time of writing, has been forthcoming from Apple) but I believe that this fundamental difference in the way the BBC is funded allows programmes like this to be made and aired. It is quite easy to see why a commercial broadcaster would not be willing to risk advertising revenue for this sort of investigative journalism, particularly when you see what is uncovered.
In Part 1 we’ll concentrate on the Chinese aspect of Apple’s Broken Promises. In Part 2, the Indonesian side. In both cases the story is the same. Not just that a huge Western corporation is enjoying the fruits of cheap Asian labour. That’s a given these days. But that a company that holds itself up to act in the highest ethical standards, that actively promotes that image of themselves as different, that says they are going to ‘leave this world better than when they found it’…
Is just another grubby exploiter of people for their own ends.
In we dive then…
The programme starts by the reporter, Richard Bilton, pointing out the huge company that Apple has become. It is worth somewhere in the region of half a billion dollars, after all. Richard also comments on the fervour of iPhonians, with shots of Apple staff clapping in the first customers to the London Covent Garden store to get their hands on an iPhone 6.
He even admits he’s an iPhonian himself! He owns an iMac and an iPhone. Customers at the store say that there is something extra special about Apple products. Something ‘cool’…
And Apple builds on this ‘cool’ factor, actively promoting it. Tim Cook, in a video he provides the voice for, claims that Apple will leave the world a better place, That they are environmentally better than other companies in this regard. That they can BE TRUSTED.
Apple indeed promotes itself as the epitomy of ethical business practices and in a seperate video Tim Cook is shown explaining that their supply chain must be above reproach.
So, Richard goes in search of Apple’s credentials.
An estimated 1 million chinese workers are involved in making Apple products. Li Qiang of Chinese Labour Watch makes the point that Apple couldn’t be who they are without China. The history of Apple’s involvement in the Chinese labour market is outlined, particularly the 2010 Foxconn scandal, where 14 workers took their own lives due to over work. The point is made (thankfully for BlackBerry fans!) that since then Foxconn’s record has improved, with better working conditions and hours being implemented.
Since this Apple produced a set of standards – a code of practice – that all suppliers should meet.
But Apple needed someone else in the light of the scandal. So they employed the services of a company called Pegatron, based on the outskirts of Shanghai where things were supposed to be better. Li Qiang is on screen again, claiming that his organisation has reported on Pegatron over and over again to no avail.
The BBC employed 3 undercover reporters to be employed at Pegatron. In the run up to the launch of the iPhone 6 Pegatron recruited thousands of new workers in recruitment centres away from the main factory.
Pegatron’s first act is to fingerprint the new workers and remove their ID card. In China you have to carry your ID card at all times. Without it, you can’t actually do ANYTHING. Including buying a train ticket.
The undercover reporter demanded that they return it. Pegatron refused. According to Apple’s own documents:
Which they so obviously don’t.
It’s now a 28 hour coach journey from the recruitment centre to the factory outside Shanghai. Workers are then sent to dormitories. Huge buildings that house 80,000 people in bunk beds, up to 12 crammed into a room. Apple’s own rules state their should be ‘no more than 8’. The undercover reporter points out that he struggled with this and Apple ‘say ‘it’s now been resolved’.
Upon arrival in this new strange town the workers are given back their ID’s (the idea seems to be to stop them jumping ship en route) and are then very firmly made very aware that doing as you are told is the right way to behave. And you are expected to be told once. In scenes more reminiscent of the 1940’s rather than the 21st century their very self-worth is undermined immediately:
The workers must now be trained. Included in this is a questionnaire which involves answering questions as to whether you agree to stand for long hours and whether you are willing to do extra shifts, including nights. These are multiple choice but you have very little alternative.
Assuming you tick the correct boxes (one of the reporters didn’t and was made to do it again) it’s then off for a couple of hours Health and Safety training. since there are dangerous chemicals and machinery involved in the manufacturing process, followed by an examination that you must pass in order to start work. This isn’t exactly difficult as the answers are called out so workers can chant the answers together.
And so the paperwork is complete. Happy workers who freely agreed to sign away their rights can now get on with producing iPhones and iMacs.
And this, as Li Qiang says, is the problem. Whenever he has raised any issues, Apple simply point to the signed documents to ‘prove’ that actually there is nothing wrong.
After a couple of minutes showing what they call ‘a culture of intimidation’ which includes supervisors being shouted at that if they fail to perform they will be replaced, the documentary moves on to the shop floor. One of the undercover reporters says he has seen workers falling asleep whilst standing up operating machinery. And workers are shown falling asleep during breaks, or actually at their posts.
Tim Cook is then pictured in a Wall Street Journal interview from 2012 explaining how Apple are intricately measuring the working hours and conditions of over 700,000 workers around the globe. In his words, ‘I don’t know of anyone else doing as much as we do.’
There are then a number of shots of more workers asleep. In this picture everyone on this iPhone 6 test area was unconscious. Whilst you can make out the blue hats of 4 or 5 here, the camera pans across a good 8 – 10. All asleep.
But why is everyone so tired? Well, it would appear that shifts in the factory are a MINIMUM of 12 hours, up to 16 hours PER DAY with overtime built in as standard. Of course, they signed up for it…
Which makes it ok. This also includes juveniles. The documentary shows footage of a boy of 17 who talks of the fact that many of his friends have gone home, sick of the hours. They get no special treatment, they are worked the same as everyone else…
But they do.
A US expert is then shown talking about how this is a classic tactic. That if the paperwork is all in order, that’s what these company’s hide behind. Although she is surprised that Apple haven’t ‘sorted this out yet’ – in other words it’s been going on for ages.
The footage then shows how overtime is dealt with in payslips. One undercover reporter’s payslip showed his overtime as a bonus. Another had no overtime at all but was instructed to sign a separate form that said he agreed to work more than Apple’s proscribed 60 hour week.
At this point a Pegatron statement is read out saying that they care deeply about their workforce. One of the undercover reporters demonstrates just how much by the fact that by the time he got back to his 12 to a room dormitory, he was too tired to eat.
It’s worth pausing at this point to take stock. When this was originally broadcast I was talking to a few of our UTB editorial team on BBM and mentioned the working hours. One of them, quite understandably, said ‘hang on, I work long hours here, that’s nothing that special’.
But imagine this. You are 28 hours from home. You are continuously being shouted at. Every day you leave a 12 man dormitory (which is a group of bunk beds crammed together in a small room) at around 7am to make the 1 hour journey to work. That means you are up around 6am. You finish work around 8pm, sometimes 12am. It’s another hour before you are back to that 12 man room. You are up again at 6am the following day to do it all again.
There is no escape. It’s day after day. If you think your job is a treadmill, try this one.
In the documentary our intrepid reporter has now been called to Cupertino to meet Apple. It has been 6 weeks since the BBC made Apple aware of what they have uncovered. He has flown, at their behest, from the UK to California, a 12 hour flight. He gets there at the appointed time and, after 3 hours, no one will speak to him on camera and he is issued with a statement that ‘Apple will investigate and that they have done more than anyone to avoid widespread abuse of workers’.
The last footage from China is, perhaps, the most poignant and the most disturbing.
Richard travels to a village. In the villages the only career path is farming. All the teenagers and young adults have gone to the cities in the belief that they are helping their families. They think that by going to the cities they are helping their families.
Richard talks to Shi Zengqiang, father of a 15 year old who thought it a good idea to go and work at the Apple factory in Shanghai to help his family. He used his older cousins ID to get a job. Either no one checked or no one cared that he was under the proscribed minimum age.
He worked 280 hours at the Pegatron plant in 4 weeks.
And then he died.
This is his family at his grave.
His father says that had he known of the conditions at Pegatron he would never have let him go.
Apple say there were ‘no medical conditions found previously’ and that there is ‘no evidence linking the factory to his death.’
The family were given a one off payment on the strict understanding that they sign a gagging order.
According to the documentary analysts say Apple make around $248 in profit on every iPhone. The workers at the factory earn the minimum wage of £1 per hour. This equates to a cost of around $5 per iPhone at the Chinese end. American analysts are then shown explaining that no one minds someone making a profit, but this is too much.
Lastly, the documentary points out that it was the sheer volume of work that exhausted the undercover reporters. One worked 18 days straight on 12 plus hour days. And that was just the paid work.
Many workers had to go to meetings outwith the regular shifts – which went unpaid. Apple, of course, said that all meetings should take place within the working day. They don’t.
The undercover reporters finally got to the point where they had had enough (and they were free to bail at any time). But then they discovered what reaction workers could expect…
Lastly, it’s not as if the Supervisors at the plant aren’t aware of the inherent dangers of people being worked so hard. Here’s one explaining why it’s not a good idea to fall asleep on the job…
I’m sure everyone was suitably reassured. If they were awake, that is…
That’s Part 1. In Part 2 we’ll take a look at where Apple get the materials for their iPhones from. A place in Indonesia called ‘Tin Isle’ where 12 year olds dig for cheap metal and fear that landslides may bury them alive.