RSS
Is Apple poisoning Chinese workers?
Chinese environmental groups ranked Apple dead last in a survey of 29 tech companies' green records. How bad an Apple is the iPhone maker?
 
Apple came in last in a ranking of 29 IT companies based on their responsiveness to environmental and health issues in Chinese factories.
Apple came in last in a ranking of 29 IT companies based on their responsiveness to environmental and health issues in Chinese factories.
Getty

A coalition of leading Chinese environmental groups claims that Apple has the worst record, out of 29 major tech companies, when it comes to handling environmental and pollution concerns in Chinese factories. "Behind their stylish image, Apple products have a side many do not know about — pollution and poison. A side hidden deep within the company's secretive supply chain," reads a statement by the groups that released the report, titled "The Other Side of Apple." Here, a brief guide to the claims and Apple's reaction (or lack thereof):

What does the report say about Apple?
Among the most damning statements in the document is this one: "While Apple's been busy updating their sales records, its employees have been enduring poisonous chemicals, with their rights and dignity being seriously trespassed on and the surrounding areas and environment being polluted by dirty water and emissions."

Who is behind the report?
A coalition of 36 of China's top environmental groups. The lead author was the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), an non-governmental organization based in Beijing and led by Ma Jun, a well-known Chinese environmentalist.

Why is the coalition studying this issue?
When major brands outsource production to obscure Chinese firms, says Jonathan Watts in The Guardian, they can take advantage of lower labor costs, weaker safety standards, and "environmental regulations more lax than in the west." Not to mention the ability to "be secretive about their suppliers," a lack of transparency that's rationalized as corporate confidentiality. When you factor in official corruption, this "has made China a haven for polluters."

What evidence of Apple's alleged transgressions does the report offer?
To take one example, it cites a case at the Wintek factory in Suzhou, China, where a wave of illness among workers has been linked to the inhalation of n-hexane, a toxic chemical used to clean touch screens. The case was widely reported in the Chinese press and the workers reportedly appealed directly to Apple in 2009, but say they were ignored. (It's "unclear" whether Apple ever admitted its Wintek connection). The report also highlights Apple's much-criticized response to last year's rash of suicides at Foxconn factories, referencing an email from Apple CEO Steve Jobs that reportedly read: "Although every suicide is tragic, Foxconn's suicide rate is well below the China average. We are all over this."

How has Apple responded to the report?
The company has denied the charges, but not offered much further comment, leading Ma Jun, the report's head researcher to say: "We originally thought that Apple, as a corporate citizen, would take a leadership role, but now we feel they ended up as the most obstructive." An Apple spokesperson has referenced internal reports released by the company, which, according to Mike Martin at MacNewsWorld, also "paint a far-from-flattering picture." One such report from 2009-2010 reveals that only 61 percent of Apple's 102 facilities were in accordance with injury prevention rules.

Is this a problem unique to Apple?
No. Other companies, including Nokia, Ericcson, and LG, were cited as being unresponsive in addressing pollution and worker safety concerns. Jim Puckette of the Basel Action Network, an organization working to combat human rights and environmental abuses, says, "Every company that looks for cheap labor overseas is equally guilty of taking advantage of the lack of significant infrastructure to deal with these problems." And analyst Rob Enderle questions the fairness of the rankings, given that Apple doesn't have its own factories in China but rather contracts out its work. While "Apple should be going after their contractors too, it may be more fair if these groups also went after them," Enderle says.

What companies are doing better?
The report credited Hewlett Packard, British Telecom, Sony, Siemens, and Alcatel for being some of "the most responsive to third-party inquiries about alleged environmental violations." In the case of the Wintek poisonings, Motorola and Nokia responded to questions about their involvement with the factory in a relatively prompt manner.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Guardian, CNET, TheWeek.com, BAN.org, MacNewsWorld

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week