Apple’s latest report on the conditions in its supplier factories included an announcement that it was banning “bonded labor”in its supply chain. The move applies to workers who travel across borders and pay to get jobs in its supplier factories.
Yet in the week since the report came out, reaction is already fading. Some industry observers applauded Apple’s action and moved on. But it’s worth pausing a second to consider what the somewhat dry language in Apple’s announcement is really talking about. After all, the thing Apple banned would be beyond intolerable to any American worker.
The process works like this: Employment agencies recruit workers. They then charge them placement fees for jobs, often in foreign countries. Those fees end up putting workers in debt to the agency. If that wasn't bad enough, according to Apple's own audits, some agencies held the passports of bonded workers in safes until their debts were paid off.
That's right, no passports. That probably means no form of identification, and it certainly means that they can't go home.
It's pretty close to what some might call indentured servitude. And that's what Apple -- the tech company that has taken a lot of heat and also offers the most information about its factory conditions -- has only just stopped. (It did previously ban factories from using employment agencies that charged more than a month's wages in fees.)
This is where we are in 2015.
And before any back-patting commences, it's worth noting that even this step is just a small one, said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, who co-authored a paper with the Economic Policy Institute that raised questions about Apple’s auditing process. Nova noted that the policy only applies to those who travel across borders to work at Apple supplier factories -- not to the Chinese workers at Chinese suppliers, many of whom also use recruiting agencies.
Nova has other problems with Apple's system. While Apple has made inroads in some areas, it actually saw compliance with overtime rules fall from the previous year. Last year, 92 percent of workers of factories that the company audited kept to a 60-hour work week, a decline from 2013 when it was 95 percent. That's not nearly as bad as levels in 2007, when it was roughly 70 or 80 percent, but it is a dip. Not to mention the 60-hour work week, which many of us would balk at, is also 10 hours more than China's poorly-enforced law limiting the work week to 50 hours. (Technically, Apples contracts with companies such as Foxconn to manufacture its electronics and does not directly employ those workers).
And, not to overstate the point: These are the problems that we know about, from one company, and only because they're self-reported. It may feel like the media and activists pick on Apple for disclosing information at all when the same labor conditions have been identified at supplier factories for Samsung, Microsoft, and many other tech firms.
"They're all the same," Nova said. "They're all essentially the same, it's just the difference in their public relations management."
Still, there's no doubt that banning this one practice is a step forward, said Dan Viederman of Verite, a labor rights group that has worked with Apple to address these problems. And he gives credit to Apple for even acknowledging the problems, and for the limited results. For example, he noted, Apple has doled out $21 million in backpay to bonded laborers in the past -- a concrete example of progress.
But the slow pace of change can be frustrating. "We've been working on this for fifteen years," he said. "It's a shame that it's taken that long to even get this initial set of companies to act on this issue."
Viederman, who gives credit to Apple as well Hewlett-Packard for taking steps on bonded labor, added that companies can only do so much.
"Companies can and must do what they can in their own supply chains. But they can't solve the problem once and for all," he said. Real reform would require new laws, fundamental changes to the way tech workers are recruited, and the cooperation of foreign governments to better protect workers, he said.
So what could Apple, or any tech company, do to speed things up? Nova suggests a model recently struck with garment workers in Bangladesh, following the horrific factory fires in 2012. In that country, he said, 200 brands and retailers fashioned an agreement with groups that directly represent workers. The deal calls for independent audits of factory conditions and promises by the retailers to put up the money to renovate dangerous facilities.
That will cost money, of course, which would eat into the relatively high profit margins that tech companies -- and Apple in particular -- enjoy. Improving worker conditions would also likely mean that consumers would have to be okay with slower delivery rates, Nova said. Getting swamped with orders for the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for example, could have been a reason that Apple's overtime hours went up this past year.
Think about that the next time you complain about delays.
[This post has been updated to correct the affiliation of Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.]