Beginning in January of 2012, The New York Times once again proved its worth as the world’s greatest newspaper with a comprehensive, multipart investigation of Apple that shed light on the working conditions on the company’s Chinese manufacturing lines. It found near-slave-labor conditions, including apparently forced labor by student “interns” at Foxconn, Apple’s largest supplier (and the supplier for a host of other tech companies as well). Exposure to poisonous chemicals and the occasional fatal factory explosion were hardly unknown to workers and their families.
Before the Times investigation, Apple successfully stonewalled reports about these unconscionable conditions. Sounding like a Stalin-era Soviet commissar, Steve Jobs claimed that Apple did “one of the best jobs of any companies in our industry, and maybe in any industry, of understanding the working conditions in our supply chain…. I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools, and I mean, for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.”
The Times investigation produced results—or at least it appeared to. Tim Cook, who replaced Jobs as Apple CEO shortly before the latter’s death in October 2011, hired the Fair Labor Association to investigate Foxconn. It found widespread violations of China’s own relatively lax labor laws, including workweeks exceeding sixty hours, sometimes for eleven days in a row. The FLA report announced that Foxconn would recruit “tens of thousands of extra workers” to lighten the load and end the mistreatment of student “interns.” Foxconn also pledged to raise worker salaries by 16 to 25 percent, to roughly $400 a month.
If the story concluded there, it would have had a happy ending. But the closer one looks, the larger the words “Potemkin village” begin to loom in one’s mind. Recently, the Times reported on the death of a 15-year-old Chinese laborer named Shi Zhaokun, who was working for the Pegatron Corporation making iPhone 5Cs. (China’s minimum work age is 16.) The fifth Pegatron worker to die in recent months, Shi was on the job for twelve hours a day, sometimes six days a week. This is not uncommon on the Apple assembly line today. According to Isaac Shapiro of the Economic Policy Institute and Scott Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium, following the announcements in 2012, “progress has been scant in fundamental areas and critical promises have apparently gone unfulfilled. Unfortunately, it is still accurate to describe Apple’s supply chain as rife with labor rights abuses.” One of the main problems is that the FLA focused its efforts exclusively on Foxconn. Meanwhile, conditions at Pegatron (Apple’s second-largest supplier) and every other Apple production facility continue to be ignored. Shapiro and Nova note that China Labor Watch released a report in July that found widespread violations of the specific commitments in Apple’s code of conduct at Pegatron, including “the significant misuse of underage workers” as well as “forced and uncompensated overtime.”