Reuters / Bobby Yip
A new investigation by the nonprofit watchdog organization China Labor Watch and Green America claims to have uncovered serious health, safety and labor violations at a plant that manufactures metal enclosures for Apple’s MacBook and iPad.
The report comes less than a week before Apple unveils its latest products on Sept. 9 in Cupertino, Calif., and identifies problems at the Catcher Technology Co. factory in the city of Suqian, in northern Jiangsu Province, China. The factory employs roughly 20,000 workers. In addition to producing components for Apple, it contracts with Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Sony, HTC, Motorola and other international brands.
“The investigation of Catcher Technology raises serious concerns around working conditions in Apple’s second-tier supplier factories,” Todd Larsen, corporate responsibility director for Green America, said in a statement. “We knew that we needed to make this information public to encourage Apple to take immediate next steps in addressing toxins and unsafe working conditions in their factories as Apple continues to ramp up production of the iPhone 6.”
China Labor Watch said an investigation in April 2013 turned up many of the same violations. It said it brought its findings to the attention of Apple — which committed to reform. In spite of its code of conduct for suppliers, China Labor Watch said it went public with its most recent report because problems persist.
Apple vigorously rejected any suggestion that it takes such reports lightly.
“Last year we conducted 451 audits deep into our supply chain so we could uncover problems and work with our suppliers to fix them, and we make it a priority to investigate every specific concern brought to our attention,” Apple said in a statement.
Apple said it dispatched a team “immediately” to investigate the findings of this latest report.
The company’s Chinese suppliers have been a focus of scrutiny since 2012, when the New York Times examined the working conditions that produced some of the world’s most coveted gadgets.
China Labor Watch’s August investigation said it found “significant amounts” of aluminum shavings on the plant floor and dust particles in the air, and a lack of proper ventilation. This dust is both flammable and combustible. It discovered the safety exits were locked, blocking the way to quickly exit the facility in the event of a fire or explosion. Moreover, workers have not participated in fire drills in the past year.
Aluminum dust was the cause of plant explosions at two of Apple’s suppliers in China — one in May 2011 at a Foxconn plant in Chengdu that killed four and injured 18 others, and another at a Shanghai factory run by RiTeng Computer Accessory that injured 59. After the incidents, Apple switched to a “wet” polishing process that reduces the risk of fire.
Apple said it audits the facility’s aluminum wet-polishing systems every month and finds that Catcher constantly exceeds international safety standards. As a result of its quarterly fire-safety inspections, the most recent of which happened last week, it said Catcher made same-day repairs of broken and expired fire extinguishers, unblocked corridors and fire exits, and added missing emergency exit signs.
China Labor’s investigation revealed that student workers, ages 16 to 18 years old, were working in the same positions as adults and logging 10-hour days. Workers were forced to work overtime — and the labor group estimates that workers put in six hours of unpaid overtime per worker per month, accruing roughly $290,000 in unpaid wages for employees in the plant.
“Excessive overtime is not in anyone’s best interest,” Apple said in a statement. “And we work closely with our suppliers to prevent it.”
Apple said it tracks the weekly working hours for more than 1 million workers. Through the end of August, it found that Catcher has averaged 95 percent compliance with its 60-hour workweek limit this year.
The report uncovered other issues, including the alleged dumping of industrial fluids and waste into groundwater and nearby rivers.
Apple said its most recent annual audit, in May, found some concrete areas for improvement in Catcher’s operations, and that it is working with the supplier to take action.