Jan. 13, 2012

A response to the news from Apple

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3/16/2012 UPDATE: This American Life has retracted the story referenced below because we learned that many of Mike Daisey's experiences in China were fabricated. We produced an entire new episode about the retraction.

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Producer Brian Reed writes:

There's news from Apple today, relating to some of the issues discussed in our program last week “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.”

For the first time, Apple has released a list of companies that build its products around the world. In another first, the company also announced that it will allow an independent third party to check on working conditions at those factories, and to make its findings public.

We don’t know that our show inspired these moves from Apple, but both of the changes are things that Mike Daisey called for in Act Two of our episode.

Apple announced these changes today when it released its latest Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, which the company has published every year since 2007. In the past, the reports have typically come out in February.

The organization that will oversee independent audits of Apple’s assemblers is a nonprofit called the Fair Labor Association, which already checks on suppliers for other American companies, including Nike, New Balance, and Adidas. Apple is the first technology company to work with the FLA. Apple says it will "open its supply chain" to the FLA, who will do unannounced factory visits. It will do these without coordinating with Apple, and will then post the results on its website.

“It’s a level of transparency and independent oversight that is unmatched in our industry,” Apple wrote in its progress report.

That said, this isn’t actually what Mike was asking for at the end of our show. While Apple is listing the names of its suppliers, it still does not identify which facilities it found to have work standard violations.

It doesn’t appear that Apple’s partnership with the FLA will increase transparency in this regard either. The FLA will audit 5% of the factories that make Apple products, but like Apple, it will not name which ones it checks or where it finds violations. The president and CEO of the FLA, Auret van Heerden, wasn’t available to talk to me today about why this is, though it's standard practice for the FLA with all the companies it investigates.

I ran all this by Mike Daisey, and here’s what he had to say:

Apple has released a list of its suppliers, but it still hides the companies it audited with anonymity. This makes it impossible to learn anything new about what is going on in Apple's supply chain, to verify anything, or hold anyone responsible. The FLA will audit a tiny percentage of Apple's factories, and also won’t make public which factories they audit.

If Apple would spend less energy finessing its public image, and instead apply its efforts to real transparency and accountability, it could be a true leader for the electronics industry. Apple today is still saying what it said yesterday: trust us, we know best, there's nothing to worry about. They have not earned the trust they are asking for.

Some people are saying that what Apple is doing is still a big move. Keith Wagstaff, who covers tech for Time, writes that at least now reporters can do their own investigations on factories that make Apple products.

“It’s almost certain that Apple will face increased scrutiny if stories of worker suicides and other labor issues start surfacing about other factories where Apple parts are made,” he writes.

Although the Fair Labor Association will not name the suppliers it assesses, its reports on the 5% of Apple facilities that it will audit will provide independent verification for the first time of Apple's claims about its supply chain. The audits posted by the FLA on its website are impressive and revealing, citing dangerous working conditions, attempts by suppliers to quash unions, unfairness in wages and hiring and much more. Go to its tracking charts page, pick a company like Adidas or Eddie Bauer or Nike and you find what seem like frank and detailed assessments.

Following up on a few other things we reported last week:

Apple conducted nearly twice as many audits in 2011 as they did in 2010.

They found fewer instances of child labor than in 2010: It was 91 cases in 2010 vs. 19 in 2011.

In our show last week we noted that in 2010, Apple found that only 32% of the suppliers it audited followed its rules about excessive working hours. According to the new report, in 2011 things did not get much better – 38% of facilities followed the rules. 37 facilities lacked basic systems to make sure that workers took off at least one day out of seven. In the report, Apple says that the problem of excessive working hours “has been a challenge throughout the history of our program. While this problem is not unique to Apple, we continue to fight it.”

The report goes on to say that “reducing excessive overtime is a top priority for our supplier responsibility program in 2012.” But again, Apple doesn’t say which facilities were in violation of these rules.

Like they did when we invited them on last week’s show, Apple declined to talk us on the record about this news, or to respond to Mike Daisey.

Apple Responsibility Reports

Email that Apple CEO sent to employees about the news

Fair Labor Organization press release

New York Times coverage

Business Week coverage