With record earnings, Apple has no excuse for continued labor abuses

In a week when Apple reported its highest quarterly earnings ever, the company is still plagued with reports of labor abuses among its suppliers.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple — which is now sitting pretty with $97.7 billion in cash after record-breaking earnings of $46.33 billion in the first quarter — has become addicted to the rapid-fire manufacturing capabilities made possible by low-wage Chinese workers, no matter the human cost.

The New York Times has begun documenting the current state of global manufacturing in its “iEconomy” series, which, not surprisingly, focuses on Apple as the latest manufacturing prodigy. Complaints about working conditions in Apple’s supplier factories aren’t new — Foxconn has been under the spotlight for years after a spat of worker suicides — but with Apple’s revenues on a seemingly non-stop tear, the fact that issues are still being reported is becoming increasingly troubling.

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” an anonymous Apple executive told the New York Times. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

The company has made gestures that it would keep tabs on its suppliers. A few weeks ago, Apple for the first time ever released a list of its suppliers, as well as the results of an internal audit report on conditions at supplier factories, which revealed ugly facts like child labor and slave labor conditions.

“I would like to totally eliminate every case of underage employment,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the time. “As we go deeper into the supply chain, we found that age verification system isn’t sophisticated enough. This is something we feel very strongly about and we want to eliminate totally.”

Cook announced that Apple is joining the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit dedicated to improving working condition worldwide, and it would add transparency and independent oversight of Apple’s suppliers. Notably, Apple is the first technology company to be approved for membership in the FLA.

Joining the FLA is definitely a significant step for Apple, though it is just one in many gestures the company has made regarding labor abuses over the past few years. As one anonymous executive told the New York Times (emphasis ours):

If you see the same pattern of problems, year after year, that means the company’s ignoring the issue rather than solving it… Noncompliance is tolerated, as long as the suppliers promise to try harder next time. If we meant business, core violations would disappear.

As Apple continues to reap the rewards of its Chinese manufacturing workforce, that last point echoes loudly. Thus far, Apple has been a company concerned with churning out as many iPhones and iPads as humanly possible. That’s not too different from every other company manufacturing products, though Apple certainly has worked its suppliers to the bone with its lean manufacturing processes and need for perfection.

The New York Times mentions one fitting example, recounted by a former Apple executive.

Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive told the NYT. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

While Apple is seeing the brunt of manufacturing complaints right now, that’s likely only because the company’s processes are so advanced. Eventually, all electronics companies will have to take a closer look at how their products are built, especially as devices like smartphones and tablets get cheaper.