"We think the use of underage labor is abhorrent," Cook told a group of Goldman Sachs investors and analysts last week. "It's extremely rare in our supply chain, but our top priority is to eliminate it totally. If we find a supplier that intentionally hires underage labor, it's a firing offense. We don't let anyone cut corners on safety. If there's a production process that can be made safer, we seek out the foremost authorities in the world -- the foremost experts -- and cut in a new standard, and then take that and apply it to the entire supply chain."
Apple says they have been ordering audits of its suppliers since 2006, and since 2007 have been publishing the sometimes disturbing results. After 229 audits last year, Apple reports that at least half of workers in over 90 factories exceeded the 60-hours-a-week work limit or worked more than six days a week.
By last year, Apple claims they inspected nearly 400 facilities around the world, but only 11 suppliers were terminated. It is easier to help improve the lives of workers by forcing a supplier to reform, Apple reasons, than by firing the supplier outright. But some activist groups say they could improve conditions faster with a "name and shame" strategy, listing the locations of specific violators. This is an idea Apple has resisted in the past, and some in the labor-rights field agree that in certain cultures, name-and-shame encourages factory owners to cover up violations instead of working with the customer to fix them.
An Honest Opinion?
The young men and women are brought into a dingy room by the dozens, and though some spend 10-hour workdays building iPads, this will be first time many of them actually get to use one.
The Fair Labor Association is using Apple's fastest-selling gadget to conduct what they say is the biggest audit the industry has ever seen. 35,000 Foxconn workers will be given an anonymous touch-screen questionnaire, with answers instantly uploaded to a server in New Zealand, so the watchdog group can understand the most common grievances. But given the stoic expressions and terse answers I've been getting from workers since I arrived, how honest can they really be?
"Some of them certainly do say what the boss wants them to say," auditor Ines Kaempfer tells me, "but the great thing about this survey is that we have such a big sample that you really always have workers who say what they're really thinking. Rather than the more traditional survey, where you ask 15 workers, you ask them face to face; they don't dare to say anything. And here, many of them feel quite protected. Because it's a big group, there's no way their boss can know what they were saying."