BBC documentary highlights conditions at a Chinese iPhone factory, but is it all Apple's fault?

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I’ve worked at a lot of different jobs in my life, but there are a few I’d never like to try: picking crops on a farm, working in a chicken processing plant, and working in any kind of factory. The relentless assembly lines and the noise of the machines would be hard to deal with. Even those factories without deafening machines still seem like harsh places to work, if only because of the cadence they impose on employees.

Whatever device you’re reading this article on was built in a factory, most likely in China. In this country, not known for its pleasant working conditions, all the major computer manufacturers have their devices built and assembled. Including Apple.

Apple has been publishing Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports on its website since 2007, detailing the efforts the company has made to improve the conditions of workers. (You can read this year’s report right here.)

apple factory audit Apple

Apple’s latest Supplier Responsibility Progress report says the company conducted 31 surprise audits in 2013. 

But has it made a difference? This is what journalist Richard Bilton set out to find. The BBC ran a documentary last night on its Panorama program (roughly the British equivalent of 60 Minutes, except each show is a full hour about a single topic). He wanted to know whether the conditions in Apple’s plants had improved since the company promised, following a series of suicides at a Foxconn plant in 2010, to improve them.

The film starts by claiming to tell “the truth about Apple and your iPhone,” and begins by looking at the “fanatics to the cult of Apple” on the day of the iPhone 6 launch. (To be fair, the journalist is an Apple user, and points out, at the beginning of the documentary, that he uses an iPhone and a “MacBook.”) Then it looks at why Apple uses China to manufacture most of their hardware: With 1 million workers making Apple products, no other country can provide so much labor so cheaply.

The BBC journalist went to Shanghai, to a Pegatron factory; a grim mini-city where 80,000 workers live in overcrowded dormitories around the plant. Pegatron got contracts to work for Apple following the 2010 incidents, but conditions at its factories seem no better. Three Chinese journalists went into the factory with hidden cameras, showing the process from hiring to training to actual work days.

From the hidden-camera footage, it looks a lot like that 1984 that Apple showed, three decades ago, in its famous TV commercial. It’s a stark difference from the glossy videos that Apple shows demonstrating robots that meticulously craft the company’s products.

Workers are treated poorly from the beginning, yelled at, forced to march in line, and their ID cards are taken from them, ensuring that they can’t go anywhere. (It’s illegal to not have your ID card with you at all times in China.) When they start working, the days are long: 12-hour shifts, often with mandatory overtime. Plenty of workers fall asleep during their breaks, and even while manning machines. And when they get back to the dormitories after these long days, they’re too tired to even worry about being cramped in sleeping rooms that look like jail cells.

A Chinese activist from China Labor Watch, Li Quang, states: “I just want the customers to know that Apple operates heartless factories.” And Ralph Nader explains, “Apple is in the best position of any company in the world, because of its massive profits, to clean up its supply chain.”

Has Apple’s production and supply chain gotten too big for the company to oversee? How easy is it for companies like Foxconn and Pegatron to give lip service to Apple’s demands without Apple knowing what’s really going on? For it’s unlikely that Apple’s own employees investigating any claims would see the same things as what these reporters filmed.

But is it fair to blame Apple for all of these problems? These conditions are certainly the same for employees working in factories making products for Samsung, HTC, Sony, and others. Apple is an easy target, being the biggest company in the computer sector, but what about all the others? The BBC explains how many other companies use this kind of factory, but, as is often the case, merely picked Apple since it’s the biggest target.

And that’s the real issue that needs addressing. It’s not Apple’s factories per se (which Apple doesn’t own, of course—these are companies contracting for Apple), but China as a whole that has harsh conditions for workers. I would have liked to have seen the insides of a factory that makes phones for other companies, one that assembles cheap toys, and one that builds all the other gadgets and goods that we import from the country. There may be 1 million workers assembling Apple products, but that is less than 1 percent of the total workforce in the country’s factories. Conditions in toy factories don’t seem any better, and may, in fact, be much worse.

Beyond China

The BBC report didn’t just look at Chinese factories, but also travelled to Indonesia to see how tin, an important component used to solder computers and mobile devices, is mined by dredging the sand for ore in shallow seas, damaging coral reefs. On land, illegal miners burn forests, strip the land, and dig tin ore, even using children.

A major tin smelter explained that he buys some tin from middlemen, who buy tin from smaller miners, so it’s likely that some of the tin ore is mined illegally. And that some of that illegally mined tin ends up in the solder used for Apple products. When asked what he thought of Apple’s promises, he said, “Bullshit Apple. Apple bullshit.”

bbc rainto BBC Panorama

According to Panorama’s investigation, some of the tin that makes its way into Apple’s supply chain is mined by children, like 12-year-old Rainto in Indonesia.

To be fair, it’s a bit surprising to see how labor-intensive the production of these devices is. I’d have expected more robots in factories. While it’s not clear from these films what tasks the employees are performing, and how these tasks relate to the overall manufacturing chain (it looks like they are testing the devices), I’d like to know if the entire manufacturing process for an iPhone is carried out in these conditions.

But is Apple truly at fault? China Labor Watch has highlighted how a Samsung factory used child labor and how toy workers are exploited. In fact, their website contains a 2013 report about Apple’s Unkept Promises, which is very close to the title of the BBC documentary, and which seems to be its source; nowhere in the credits of the documentary is this mentioned, nor is it specified if the hidden-camera footage came from this 18-month-old investigation.

Apple’s Senior Vice President of Operations Jeff Williams sent an email to the entire UK staff saying he and Tim Cook were “deeply offended by the suggestion that Apple would break a promise to the workers in our supply chain or mislead our customers in any way.” Williams said that Apple shared information with the BBC in advance that was missing from the final program, but said, “We can still do better. And we will.” You can read the full email here.

There is clearly a problem with working conditions in developing nations, whether it be the sweatshops that make our clothes, or the factories that make our tech gadgets. It’s essential to highlight them, and to work to improve them. But to single out Apple, because the company is an easy target, is simply shoddy journalism. Is Apple doing enough to change the way other countries treat their workers? I imagine that Tim Cook would say that they can never do enough—at least I hope so. But can Apple alone change these conditions? I think it would be more productive to lean on each and every company that manufactures goods in these countries, not just the biggest, and stop letting all the others off the hook.

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