Bad Apple or the best of a bad bunch? The sad reality about Apple’s Broken Promises from BBC Panorama

The following blog post comes in response to a BBC Panorama episode titled ‘Apple’s Broken Promises’, in which journalist Richard Bilton takes an undercover look at the working conditions in the factories of some of Apple’s suppliers.

Bad Apple or the best of a bad bunch? The sad reality about Apple's Broken Promises from BBC Panorama

Tim Cook is apparently “deeply offended” by the suggestion that Apple is breaking its promise to treat workers “fairly and ethically”, after Panorama highlighted yet more worrying practices inside the factories of its Chinese suppliers.


Workers falling asleep on the production line, staff forced to work 18 days in a row, and workers collapsing with exhaustion after 16-hour shifts are hardly the “highest commitment to human rights” that Apple supposedly demands of its suppliers.

In a lengthy letter to its staff in the UK, Apple doesn’t outright deny any of those allegations. Yet, it does pose the question: why pick on us? “We know of no other company doing as much as Apple does to ensure fair and safe working conditions,” writes Apple’s senior vice president of operations, Jeff Williams.

“Several years ago, the vast majority of workers in our supply chain worked in excess of 60 hours, and 70+ hour workweeks were typical,” Williams adds. “This year, our suppliers have achieved an average of 93% compliance with our 60-hour limit. We can still do better. And we will.”

Let’s not forget that “doing better” wouldn’t be an option for Apple if those factories were here in the UK. It wouldn’t have a choice. The EU Working Time Directive says companies cannot force staff to work more than 48 hours a week, and that staff must rest for at least 11 hours in any 24-hour period. Only forcing staff to work the equivalent of a full working day, every day, seems a curious thing to boast of.

Yet, I can understand why Apple feels victimised. It’s not the only tech company using cheap labour in Asian factories: in fact, show me one that isn’t. Panorama could equally have substituted Apple for Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, or even a British firm such as Tesco, which has its Hudl tablets made in the same factories as Apple does. Picking on Apple because it’s the only company that’s made a public commitment to improving worker welfare seems a little perverse.

The uncomfortable truth for consumers – and even journalists – is it’s impossible to tell what conditions are really like inside those factories. Can you make an ethical decision to buy from a company based on its own internal auditing or anecdotal evidence gathered by undercover reporters? Probably not.

The only sure way to know that people haven’t been exploited in the making of the gadgets in your pocket is to stop buying them altogether. The vast majority of people – me included – will simply bury their conscience the next time they need a smartphone.

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