Apple is once again under fire for poor working conditions at one of its parts suppliers’ factories in China.
Arriving just days before the iPhone 6 launch, which is rumored to include an appearance by the long-awaited iWatch, a report (PDF) from two nonprofit organizations, China Labor Watch (CLW) and Green America, alleges that a factory in Suqian, China, run by Catcher Technology is subjecting its employees to a dangerous work environment. An undercover investigation conducted last month revealed “health and safety, environmental, and human rights violations,” said the nonprofits in a Sept. 4 statement.
Catcher is accused of causing several life-threatening health hazards, including one with the potential to affect neighboring areas. Violations range from locked safety exits that can prevent a worker’s escape from a fire or explosion to a lack of protective equipment. In the past year, there have been no fire drills.
The lack of drills and locked exits are “inexcusable in a work environment that requires the handling of flammable materials,” said Elizabeth O’Connell, campaigns director at Green America, in a statement. “Additionally, the lack of safety training in this facility and improper handling of hazardous materials contributes to the risk of life-threatening emergencies.”
Some workers were directly exposed to toxic metal-cutting fluids used in the production of iPad casings and Apple keyboards. “After a period of time, this causes workers’ skin to itch, swell, and peel. CLW’s investigator himself suffered these side effects,” stated the report.
And the company’s unsafe practices isn’t limited to its own facilities. Catcher pours “industrial fluids and waste into groundwater and nearby rivers,” stated CLW and Green America.
The Catcher Suqian factory supplies Apple with metal iPad covers and parts for the fifth-generation iPhone, according to the advocacy groups. As the investigation unfolded, 500 to 600 workers were moved to a “sister location in Taizhou to work on the iPhone 6.”
In addition to safety violations, Catcher is accused of subjecting employees to forced overtime and excessive work hours. Student workers, ranging from 16 to 18 years of age, work the same jobs as adults and clock in 10-plus-hour days.
Catcher is also behind on the payroll. The company owes “an estimated 6 hours of unpaid overtime per worker per month,” or $290,000.
Nothing has changed since a similar investigation conducted in 2013 unearthed many of the same conditions, CLW Executive Director Li Qiang said. “Last year, CLW shared our investigative results with Apple, and the company said that it would correct the safety and labor rights violations at Catcher. This time, we are making our findings public, in an effort to reduce the exploitation of Chinese workers making Apple’s products.”
Apple Supplier Blasted for Dangerous Working Conditions in China
In an email to eWEEK, an Apple spokesperson provided the following statement:
“Apple is committed to ensuring safe and fair working conditions for everyone in our supply chain. We are the only technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association, and our suppliers must live up to the toughest standards in the industry if they want to keep doing business with Apple.
“We know our work is never done, and we are devoted to constant improvement. Last year we conducted 451 audits deep into our supply chain so we could uncover problems and work with our suppliers to fix them, and we make it a priority to investigate every specific concern brought to our attention.
“Catcher Technology’s Suqian facility makes aluminum enclosures for MacBook and iPad, and our inspectors are there constantly. We audit the facility’s aluminum wet-polishing systems every month and consistently find that they exceed international safety standards. As a result of our quarterly fire-safety inspections, the most recent of which happened last week, Catcher has made same-day repairs of broken and expired fire extinguishers, unblocked corridors and fire exits, and added missing emergency exit signs.
“Our most recent annual audit, in May, found some concrete areas for improvement in Catcher’s operations, and we worked with Catcher to develop a corrective action plan. We had scheduled a follow-up visit next month to review their progress but have dispatched a team there immediately to investigate this report.
“Excessive overtime is not in anyone’s best interest, and we work closely with our suppliers to prevent it. We track and report the weekly working hours for more than 1 million workers, and, through the end of August, Catcher has averaged 95 percent compliance with our 60-hour workweek limit this year.
“Catcher is among the 160 suppliers enrolled in our 18-month Apple Supplier EHS Academy training program, which we launched last year to raise the bar for environment, health and safety management in the industry.”
The Cupertino, Calif.-based company has repeatedly faced criticism for the treatment of workers who manufacture in-demand products such as the iPhone and iPad.
In 2010, the suicides of eight workers in a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, were widely reported to have been caused by long hours and grueling conditions at the site. That same year, then-COO Tim Cook and other senior staffers visited the factory and met with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou to assess the situation and “better understand the conditions of the site and to assess the emergency measures Foxconn was putting in place to prevent more suicides,” stated a 2011 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report published by the company.