Apple has just unveiled a fresh batch of cutting-edge products to the dazzlement of consumers worldwide. Also this week, labor watchdogs revealed fresh evidence of systematic labor abuses in Apple’s supply chain in China—to a decidedly more muted response from the tech world. The revelations of wage and hour violations and hazardous working conditions don’t herald a new invention; they instead represent a new status quo of relentless technological progress that comes at a hidden social cost that is shifted onto an invisible labor force.
Catcher Technology, a facility producing casings for Apple products in Suqian City in Jiangsu, has subjected thousands of workers to exploitative conditions, according to a report by the New York–based China Labor Watch (CLW) and environmental watchdog Green America. The findings suggest little has changed at the facility since an earlier study exposing similar violations in 2013. Back then, Apple had promised to investigate and resolve the problems. The new report lists even more problems—more than twenty violations overall, of the company’s own labor code of conduct, as well as Chinese labor law, from wage theft to lack of clear employment contract procedures to toxic exposures.
Although it is unclear whether the newly documented violations (uncovered by an investigator posing as a front-line worker) were also happening during the 2013 investigation, CLW Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten says the overall evidence points to a general negligence of structural labor problems in Apple’s global production chain.
Slaten stressed that among tech multinationals, including rival Samsung, Apple is by no means unique in its labor practices. But given Apple’s brand power, Slaten says, “we were trying to make a point…that even the number one brand in the consumer electronics industry is not necessarily living up to their own promotion, their code of conduct [or] the promises that they made specifically on this factory.”
The problems all speak to a general disempowerment of the workforce, which is perpetually subject to gruelingly intense work regimens, harsh living conditions and the tight grip of surveillance and social management on the factory grounds and in the spartan worker dormitories.
“A lot of this has to do with the business relationship between the factory and the brand companies,” Slaten says. “Brand companies are looking to maximize profit, and they’re going to continue to press prices downward, and the only sort of flexible input left for the factories is labor.”
The monthly base pay at Catcher, according to the report, is about $1500 RMB (less than $250). But workers can more than double the base wage with overtime pay (working up to 100 overtime hours per month, though some goes uncompensated), plus bonus work like nightshifts and shifts that require working in “high temperature” enclosures.