Malcolm Moore is the Telegraph's Shanghai Correspondent. He arrived in China in July 2008 after three years in Italy as the Telegraph's Rome Correspondent. Before that, he was the paper's Economics Correspondent.
The article was based on Apple’s own investigation into the factories across the world that produce its range of computers, iPods, iPhones and accessories.
Apple admitted that it had found instances of child labour, excessive working hours, environmental abuses, and criminally low wages at some of its suppliers.
The company started the programme after being coming under fire in the media in 2006 for the poor working conditions at one of its iPod assembly plants in China.
Since then, as its business and supply chain has grown, the company has also expanded its audit: from 39 factories in 2007 to 102 last year.
The article attracted a great deal of criticism, and a number of commentators pointed out that Apple deserves credit for voluntarily investigating and publishing the shortcomings of its factories.
“Please name any other tech company that is actually working to ensure that the working conditions in the factories where these components are made are at least tolerable and the workers are not exploited? Please list what Nokia or Palm or HTC are doing to ensure the parts that go into their phones are not fabricated by exploited workers or child labourers?” asked one commentator.
In its report, Apple also gave itself a pat on the back for its work. “During most of our audits, suppliers stated that Apple was the only company that had ever audited their facility for supplier responsibility.”
I agree that Apple deserves credit for being transparent, and I also agree that its competitors, such as HTC, the makers of Google’s Nexus One phone, could do a great deal more to comfort buyers that their products have been manufactured ethically.
However, if you read through the series of annual reports that Apple has published (downloadable here), it becomes clear that the factories that the company is using are becoming worse, not better.
This year’s report highlighted 17 “core violations”, five more than last year and a proportionally greater number (accounting for the increase in the number of factories audited).
Some problems have got much worse. The percentage of factories that have the correct environmental permits and reporting systems has fallen from 73pc last year to just 57pc this year. The percentage of factories that are working to prevent occupational injury has fallen from 79pc to 61pc.
More factories are paying the right wages: 65pc compared to 59pc, and more factories are sticking to Apple’s guidelines on working hours: 46pc compared to 41pc. However, it is clear that when more than half of your suppliers are working their employees more than 60 hours a week (Apple’s guideline, which is already in breach of the widely-ignored Chinese labour law), there’s still work to be done.
And in terms of prevention of involuntary labour, emergency prevention, dormitory and dining conditions, ergonomics, chemical exposure and anti-discrimination, Apple’s factories are all scoring worse.
At the end of the report, Apple has put together a chart of how factories are improving, compared to last year and the year before. The problem is, the factories listed on the chart are different from the ones listed in last year’s report, and almost none of the examples tally.
The only factory which does seem to have been compared between reports (named as Facility I in the 2009 report, and Facility 3 in the 2010 report) has shown a deterioration.
It seems then, that while Apple is to be applauded for having reported on its factories, it is not doing enough to actually change what is going on at those factories. If the company really was dedicated to improving the lives of its workers, it would stop using factories that were found to be in breach.
In the 2010 report, Apple audited 102 factories. There were huge problems with many of them. A shocking 24 factories were found to not even pay their staff the minimum wage, of around 800 yuan, or £76, a month. But the company only terminated its contract with one plant, for falsifying its records. Until factories face more serious consequences, the only purpose of this report, in my opinion, is as a PR exercise.