Apple CEO Tim Cook ‘deeply offended’ by BBC Panorama allegations of worker abuse

22 Dec 2014

Apple CEO Tim Cook at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) earlier this year

The CEO of Apple Tim Cook has been “deeply offended” by allegations in a BBC report that workers have been badly treated at Chinese factories where iPhone and iPad devices are assembled.

A BBC Panorama programme last week entitled Apples Broken Promises claimed to have uncovered poor treatment of workers at Pegatron factories on the outskirts of Shanghai and showed images of entire assembly lines of workers asleep at their stations during shifts that lasted as long as 16 hours.

The report alleged that workers on iPhone 6 assembly lines were forced to work 18 days in a row.

The report also alleged that Apple sources metal from smelting mines in Indonesia, where in some cases children are forced to work.

On behalf of Cook, the company’s vice-president of operations Jeff Williams on Friday wrote to the company’s 5,000 employees in the UK and said the company’s management was “deeply offended” by the suggestion Apple would break a promise to workers in the company’s supply chain or mislead customers.

“As you know, Apple is dedicated to the advancement of human rights and equality around the world,” Williams wrote.

“We are honest about the challenges we face and we work hard to make sure that people who make our products are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

In terms of the footage, Panorama showed of shocking conditions around tin mining in Indonesia. Williams said Apple has publicly stated that tin from Indonesia ends up in its products and some of that tin can come from such mines.

“Tens of thousands of artisanal miners are selling tin through many middlemen to the smelters who supply to component suppliers who sell to the world. The government is not addressing the issue, and there is widespread corruption in the undeveloped supply chain. Our team visited the same parts of Indonesia visited by the BBC, and of course we are appalled by what’s going on there.

“Apple has two choices: We could make sure all of our suppliers buy tin from smelters outside of Indonesia, which would probably be the easiest thing for us to do and would certainly shield us from criticism. But it would be the lazy and cowardly path, because it would do nothing to improve the situation for Indonesian workers or the environment since Apple consumes a tiny fraction of the tin mined there. We chose the second path, which is to stay engaged and try to drive a collective solution.

“We spearheaded the creation of an Indonesian Tin Working Group with other technology companies. Apple is pushing to find and implement a system that holds smelters accountable so we can influence artisanal mining in Indonesia. It could be an approach such as ‘bagging and tagging’ legally mined material, which has been successful over time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are looking to drive similar results in Indonesia, which is the right thing to do.”

Dignity and respect

In relation to the report about working conditions among Apple’s 1,400 manufacturing staff in China who manage the company’s manufacturing operations, Williams said: “They are in the factories constantly — talented engineers and managers who are also compassionate people, trained to speak up when they see safety risks or mistreatment. We also have a team of experts dedicated solely to driving compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct across our vast supply chain.

“In 2014 alone, our supplier responsibility team completed 630 comprehensive, in-person audits deep into our supply chain. These audits include face-to-face interviews with workers, away from their managers, in their native language. Sometimes critics point to the discovery of problems as evidence that the process isn’t working. The reality is that we find violations in every audit we have ever performed, no matter how sophisticated the company we’re auditing. We find problems, we drive improvement, and then we raise the bar.”

Williams said that several years ago it was confirmed that workers in Apple’s supply chain did indeed work in excess of 60 hour weeks and 70-hour work weeks were typical.

He said Apple decided to tackle the problem by tracking the weekly hours of more than 1m workers.

“It takes substantial effort, and we have to weed out false reporting, but it’s working. This year, our suppliers have achieved an average of 93pc compliance with our 60-hour limit. We can still do better. And we will.

“Our auditors were the first to identify and crack down on a ring of unscrupulous labour brokers who were holding workers’ passports and forcing them to pay exorbitant fees. To date, we have helped workers recoup US$20m in excessive payments like these.

“We’ve gone far beyond auditing and corrective actions by creating educational programmes for workers in the same facilities where they make our products. More than 750,000 people have taken advantage of these college-level courses and enrichment programmes, and the feedback we get from students is inspiring.”

Williams concluded: “I will not dive into every issue raised by Panorama in this note, but you can rest assured that we take all allegations seriously, and we investigate every claim. We know there are a lot of issues out there, and our work is never done. We will not rest until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years