tim cook

Above: Me and my halo

On the heels of a record quarterly profit, Apple was slammed in the press yesterday by a lengthy New York Times article highlighting the poor working conditions in the Chinese factories that make Apple products. Tim Cook, the company’s new chief executive, responded with an email to employees that was picked up by 9to5 Mac.

Nowhere in the email does Cook explicitly acknowledge specific issues in his supply chain. Instead he takes offence at the idea that Apple isn’t working to address the ongoing problems:

“As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today, and I’d like to address this with you directly. We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.”

Cook’s position is that while troubling issues do exist, no one is doing more than Apple to prevent them. “Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain,” Cook wrote. “We are attacking problems aggressively with the help of the world’s foremost authorities on safety, the environment, and fair labor. It would be easy to look for problems in fewer places and report prettier results, but those would not be the actions of a leader.”

But Cook’s account doesn’t square with reporting from the NY Times, which included direct quotes from many former Apple employees who had worked overseas. “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” a former Apple executive told the NYT. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

While Apple has begun a campaign of audits, it has not made significant changes to its stable of manufacturing partners as a result. Its inspections have turned up serious violations at hundreds of plants, but only 15 suppliers have been terminated since 2007. Would asking for serious reforms cut into Apple’s record profits? Certainly. But if you believe former Apple employees, it would also force real, drastic change in these manufacturers’ labor practices.

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