Lots of tech sites just now are covering a think tank report about forced labour in China, which named Apple among the many global brands whose supply chains were involved. I’m not quite sure why, given that the report was published back in March (the BBC wrote about it at the time), but perhaps this is another example of the echo-chamber way that tech journalism sometimes works: it seems to have originated from this Indian article which treats the report as new. In any case it’s good this important story is getting more attention.
As it happens there’s been a more recent development to the story since the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) originally published the report, Uyghurs For Sale. But let’s recap the horrendous allegations before we go any further.
Members of China’s ethnic and religious minorities – a large proportion of them Uyghur Muslims – are alleged to have been transported into a network of ‘re-education’ internment camps in the Xinjiang region and required to renounce their culture and religion. Following a process of ideological discipline (and, according to some reports, instances of torture), ‘graduated’ internees are forcibly put to work in factories where they form part of the supply chain of some of the biggest companies in the world.
Apple is very far from being alone in facing this accusation: ASPI claims the supply chains of 83 “well-known global brands” have some involvement with factories using compelled Uyghur labour. Other than Apple, major tech firms named in the report include Samsung, Sony, Huawei, Amazon, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Nintendo; there are also car brands such as BMW, Volkswagen, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz, and fashion brands such as Gap, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret and Nike.
We should also stress that any wrongdoing on Apple’s part is indirect, and very likely unknowing: the think tank acknowledges that many of the products are manufactured via bafflingly complex supply chains, and notes that Tim Cook praised the “humane approach towards employees” shown by one of the factories following a visit, suggesting the facility may have taken steps to conceal certain working practices. But the publication of this report means the company can no longer use the excuse that it does not know.
And two of the named companies have since taken action. In June, Adidas met with European Parliament member Raphael Glucksmann, and agreed to stop working with suppliers and subcontractors “involved in the exploitation of Uyghur forced labourers”. A week later Lacoste followed suit.
There still remain 81 named brands that have not signed up to Glucksmann’s campaign (Nike gave him a meeting but said no) so it might seem odd that we’re picking on Apple here. Partly, it is true, we’re doing so because that is the company we write about on Macworld, but there are other reasons why it seems reasonable to shine a spotlight on Cupertino’s response in particular. The immense scope of the company’s manufacturing, for example, means it is simultaneously culpable in the greatest suffering if it allows this to continue, and capable of doing the most good if it objects.
Perhaps no single company has the leverage to persuade China to change its policy – after all, it has resisted sanctions from the most powerful nation on earth. But Apple has a better chance than most.
Some commentators have said it is unrealistic, even naive, to expect Apple to denounce the treatment of the Uyghurs when its supply chain is so deeply entwined with China’s economy and its revenue so dependent on the Chinese market. Some believe Tim Cook privately deplores the persecution of the Uyghurs and is working to diversify Apple’s supply chain (there are reports it’s increasingly shifting iPhone manufacture to India) so that it does have the ability to withdraw its custom on ethical grounds. But it’s striking that two fashion brands with considerably less financial clout have found themselves able to a) make a statement and b) commit to action.
And it’s not like Apple is a studiously neutral company, or one that never comments on ethical matters. It recently spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and while some might imagine denouncing racism is uncontroversial – and you’ll note that the statement steers clear of any condemnation of US law enforcement as an institution – a glance at the current political situation in the States makes it clear that this will have lost it some customers. Tim Cook once told climate change sceptics to ditch their Apple shares, and said: “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.”
There have long been reports about inhumane worker conditions in the supply chains used by Apple and other tech companies, but it does seem to be working to improve matters. The firm publishes a Supplier Responsibility Progress Report every year, and has committed, among other things, to “stopping debt-bonded labour before it can happen”. Since I wrote this article it suspended new business with Pegatron because student workers were working overtime in violation of its Supplier Code of Conduct.
Quite aside from my views on this as a journalist, as an Apple customer, I want to hear from the company on this subject. If it leads, the market may follow, and real change could occur. But whether that happens or not, I no longer think it’s acceptable for Apple to look the other way.
Post-script: Since I wrote this article, US Congress has proposed a bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ban imports from the Xinjiang province, unless importers can prove that no forced labour was involved. This is a promising development, but it breaks my heart to report that Apple, while insisting that it supports the bill in spirit and wants it to pass, has paid lobbyists to raise numerous objections.