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UPDATED: August 10, 2014 NO.7 FEBRUARY 16, 2012
The Sour Apple
A Chinese perspective of what it takes to become an Apple
By Liu Yunyun

Apple's leftovers

THE GUARDIAN: The father of an injured worker sits beside the hospital bed of his son, who was injured by an explosion caused by the misuse of aluminite powder at the Chendu factory of Fongfujin Precision Electroncis (Chengdu) Co. Ltd., which polishes Apple's electronic devices (LI QIAOQIAO)

Disguised by the shiny exterior of an iPad or an iPhone, pollution, occupational diseases, abuse of labor and occasional industrial accidents are the biggest problems that haunt Apple's sourcing partners in China.

Apple's harsh and demanding requests for suppliers and outsourcing partners, aggressive attitude to its outsourcing partners during negotiations, and its disregard of pollution have led to mounting problems with its suppliers that need immediate remedies.

A few days before the 2011 Christmas holiday, an explosion rocked the fourth floor of RiTeng Computer Accessory's Shanghai plant, which provided accessories for Apple's electronic devices. The accident left 61 workers seriously injured. A similar incident also occurred at another Apple supplier in May 2011 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

In January 2011, Ma Jun, director of the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) based in Beijing, issued a pollution report titled The Other Side of Apple, which listed 11 cases of workers who were poisoned by n-hexane, a poisonous liquid cleaner which is used to clean the touch screens of Apple devices.

According to Ma, Apple said one thing and did another. Apple claimed that it is committed to ensuring that working conditions in its supply chain are safe, that workers are treated with respect and dignity, and that manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible.

IPE and some other NGOs conducted two surveys in 2011, and they found 27 Apple-related suppliers discharged excessive poisonous and polluting sewage into the rivers.

Some of Apple's suppliers, like Foxconn, are major international companies; others are smaller and often under-regulated. Apple manages to squeeze profits from its suppliers to cut its costs. As a result, the suppliers have taken extreme measures such as forcing workers to work long shifts, hiring under-aged workers, holding back workers' salaries and polluting the environment.

When interviewed, workers at the factory of Lian Jian Technology in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, stated that n-hexane evaporated much more quickly than alcohol-based cleaners, thereby increasing their efficiency. Inhaling n-hexane leads to peripheral neuropathy, numbness of the limbs, and impedes movement and the sense of touch.

The production area at the Lian Jian Technology factory boasts an air tight clean room, which is a stuffy place with poor air circulation. When local authorities inspected the production site, they discovered a buildup of volatile n-hexane in the air that greatly exceeded national safety limits. Because the workers were not effectively protected, over time many in the production area were gradually poisoned.

The Chinese tax payers ended up paying the bill for treating employees injured by occupational diseases.

Ma went to Apple's headquarters last November, and said he was happy to see the change of attitude of the Apple management, from "complete negligence" to willing to make a difference, though it has so far done little to improve the work conditions of its suppliers.

Ma said Apple must choose between two options. One is to take advantage of the pitfalls in the Chinese legal system, side with the polluting companies and obtain its exorbitant profits at the cost of environmental pollution and the people's well being; and the other is to open up and cooperate with the Chinese side and NGOs to boost green production and the construction of the green supply chain.

Under heavy pressure, Apple released a 27-page long 2012 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report in January. For the first time in Apple's history, it revealed the list of 97 percent of its global suppliers. Apple said in the report that it has indeed found "a number of violations," but did not say anything about how and when to correct them.

Analysts questioned Apple's intention in disclosing the list, and argued the finger-pointing has actually shifted the social responsibility that Apple should carry to its suppliers in developing countries, which are in a weak position when doing business with Apple.

Wang Tieshan, professor at Xi'an Jiaotong University, said the problem of infringing on labor rights by some multinationals has become more and more serious, mainly in processing trade companies and exporting companies in the electronics, textiles, garments, shoes, toys and handicrafts industries. Enterprises in these industries ignore work safety and sanitation, environmental protection and labor protection, depress salaries and benefits, and provide inadequate remedies for industrial injury and medical treatment to avoid social responsibilities.

Multinationals like Apple claim to have a strict process for monitoring their suppliers, but with the continued refinement of work divisions and with the list of suppliers getting longer, it's possible for them to lose control of their supply chains. Both the government and the multinationals should be involved in supervising the conduct of those suppliers and make sure they are properly guided to avoid future mistakes.

Of course, China needs to improve its legal system so that all downstream companies take action to prevent pollution just as upstream companies do. The Chinese authorities should also reflect on their role in corporate social responsibility supervision. Some cities, in order to attract investment, sacrifice their interests in environmental protection and labors' rights. Local governments tend to spoil big companies which can bring considerable GDP growth to the local economy.

In addition, monitoring technologies of government departments are outdated and the working efficiency is poor, Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer at the Beijing Lianggao Law Firm who has participated in lawsuits against foreign brands, told Xinhua News Agency. Many government officials know little about corporate social responsibilities and government supervisors have no monitoring or prevention authority over these companies.

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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