Apple's massive profits built on exploiting workers

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February 9, 2015

Apple executives are likely proud of their recent quarterly financial results which show revenues of nearly US$75 billion for the period of October through December and a profit of US$18 billion, the largest quarterly profit for any company anywhere at any time. But if the money is rolling in and the iPhones and other electronic gadgets are rolling out, a huge human price is being paid.

A BBC undercover investigation recently broadcast on CBC-TV's The Passionate Eye showed widespread violations of Apple's code of conduct for the treatment of workers by companies that build its iPhone 6 and supply raw material for the company.

At a factory in China called Pegatron, three undercover reporters had their ID illegally taken (and later returned), worked 60 or more hours a week, showed crowded living conditions in the dormitories where workers slept, spoke of a culture of intimidation in the factory and filmed numerous workers asleep at their work stations. Despite company promises to the contrary, the show documented one case where a worker under age 16 had worked overtime and on night shifts.

The TV show also revealed illegal tin mines in Indonesia with working conditions where miners had been killed in landslides and traced tin from such illegal mines into Apple's supply chain.

Apple told the BBC it "strongly disagreed" with its conclusions and that it sees continuous and significant improvements in the conditions under which its Asian workers produce its digital products. However, a representative of the China Labour Watch said the advocacy group has seen almost no improvement in working conditions since complaints against Apple began.

The catalyst for such complaints was 14 suicides in 2010 at Apple's biggest supplier in China where workers suffered from long hours, poor living conditions and harsh discipline. The supplier's immediate response was to put up "suicide nets" to catch workers jumping from buildings, although it went on to improve working conditions.

Apple, according to The Passionate Eye, pays its suppliers about $5 for every finished iPhone and makes $248 profit per phone. Clearly, there is considerable financial headroom for improving working conditions while still maintaining bountiful profits.

What can we do? One could, of course, boycott Apple products and, if enough people do that, the company will respond to its diminished reputation and bottom line. Any boycott would have to be well organized to have hope of success. One could also spread the story and write to Apple complaining of the treatment of workers involved in producing its products.

Whatever one does, one should not accept a world in which workers are treated as little better than slaves while producing popular, but non-essential, items for Western consumers. Consumption is not an activity lacking in moral implications. We are responsible for what we purchase.