NEW YORK — A factory in Suqian, China, was found to have a number of serious health, safety, environmental, and human rights violations, according to a report from the nonprofit organizations China Labor Watch (CLW) and Green America. Catcher manufactures metal iPad covers and parts for fifth generation iPhones. It has contracts with Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Sony, HTC, Motorola, and others.
The factory, which employs about 20,000 people, was found to have 20 "legal and ethical" violations, including significant amounts of aluminum-magnesium alloy shreddings on the floor, dust particles in the air, improper ventilation, and inadequate protective equipment for handling flammable and combustible materials. Skin is exposed directly to toxins, the report said. There are no ventilator masks, and industrial waste is poured into groundwater and nearby rivers.
Employees haven't participated in fire drills in a year, investigators said, and the factory locked its safety exits.
"The health and safety violations found in this factory two years in a row are startling," Elizabeth O'Connell, campaigns director at Green America, said in a press release. "The lack of fire drill training and locked safety exits are inexcusable in a work environment that requires the handling of flammable materials. Additionally, the lack of safety training in this facility and improper handling of hazardous materials contributes to the risk of life-threatening emergencies."
The report also told of excessive hours for employees of all ages, including students 16-18 years old. Investigators estimate that workers are forced into six hours of unpaid overtime per month and are owed $290,000 in unpaid wages. Workers who complain face retaliation.
"Workers must take mandatory overtime, laboring on their feet for more than 10 hours a day, six days a week, and they are not even paid for all of that overtime work," CLW program coordinator Kevin Slaten said in the release. "This is exploitation by the factory and Apple for the sake of profit maximization."
During the investigation, 500-600 workers from Catcher Sujian were transferred to a sister location in Taizhou to work on the iPhone 6, the report said.
CLW investigated the Catcher factory in April 2013 and found many of the same violations; officials said that, despite Apple's promises, the company hasn't made progress in improving work conditions. Catcher is not one of 18 final assembly plants in China where Apple has committed to banning the use of benzene and n-hexane in manufacturing.
Tim Bajarin, president of the technology consulting firm Creative Strategies, said Apple has been "pretty consistent" in dealing with factory workers' issues. He cited its 450 audits of factory floors in the last three years, along with an 18-month educational program for safety managers at each factory that contracts with Apple.
"My understanding is that, in this case with things like the fire hazards, Apple dealt with it almost immediately. But it doesn't mean it didn't happen again. When [Apple] heard this report, they immediately dispatched a team to Catcher," Bajarin told us. "Apple has to be concerned about every aspect of the supply chain, so Apple has to at least monitor" conditions.
Apple and other companies can't have 24/7 overseers at factories due to manpower and cultural issues with the Chinese government. Still, Bajarin said, every factory has to know that Apple is monitoring it.
"Chinese factories' steadfastness toward safety is not always consistent," he said. "To be honest, it really does take serious oversight and browbeating from their customers to keep them straight and narrow." Another audit on Catcher is under way. Apple is "dealing with Chinese manufacturing, which, in some cases, is culturally lax. They and everybody else have to deal with that as part of the supply chain process."
Apple told us in an email that it conducted 451 supply chain audits last year.
Our inspectors are there [at Catcher] constantly. We audit the facility's aluminum wet-polishing systems every month and consistently find that they exceed international safety standards. As a result of our quarterly fire-safety inspections, the most recent of which happened last week, Catcher has made same-day repairs of broken and expired fire extinguishers, unblocked corridors and fire exits, and added missing emergency exit signs.
The company also said it found "some concrete areas for improvement" in Catcher's operations at the recent annual audit in May and worked with the factory on plans to fix the issues. "We had scheduled a follow-up visit next month to review their progress, but have dispatched a team there immediately to investigate this report."
Apple came under major fire in 2012 when reports surfaced that its Chinese manufacturing partner, Foxconn Technology, was accused of using forced student labor to make iPhones. Foxconn later admitted to hiring underage workers.
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times