WASHINGTON - This week American tech giant Apple announced a new human rights policy aimed at improving the rights of workers who manufacture its popular smartphones and computers.
Apple's “supplier code of conduct” specifies that all workers in Apple’s supply chain “deserve a fair and ethical workplace.” It prohibits harassment and abuse and specifies a 60-hour maximum workweek, as well as at least one day off per week, among other protections.
The policy document follows criticism of Apple from human rights groups that have accused the company of ignoring abuses by suppliers.
On the same day that Apple released its human rights policy, a video filmed at an Apple supplier in China was going viral on Chinese social media.
In the video, shot at a factory just outside Shanghai, a manager could be seen handing out identification cards to new workers by tossing the new IDs on the factory floor. The workers had to bend down on their knees to pick up the IDs.
The next day, Pegatron, the company that owns the plant, which makes mobile phone accessories for Apple, issued an apology for "not respecting new hires."
Apple worker rights in China?
The video highlighted some of the many challenges Apple faces as it tries to extend a respect for rights to the factories of its suppliers.
After the Chinese video appeared, China Labor Watch, a New York-based nonprofit, criticized the behavior at the factory as a great insult to workers. In a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook earlier this week, the organization said it has received complaints of abuse of workers at the plant.
These complaints include violating the one-day break per week, forcing workers to use their breaks to work, delaying bonus payments, preventing student workers from leaving the factory and not allowing workers to resign.
Apple’s new policy maintains that the company wants its suppliers “to ensure that every workplace provides a safe and respectful environment for everyone.”
Human rights organizations have welcomed the company's new policy, but they note that what it lacks is an implementation mechanism.
Matt Bailey, program director of digital freedom at Pen America, praised the language in the new policy but also called it mostly a “symbolic move.” He said it was “a commitment that lacks public accountability.”
“It's lacking in a road-map of actions or reforms that would be taken, timelines to accompany that sort of thing. And also in some cases it's lacking essentially bright lines. How would Apple make decisions about some of these issues under specific circumstances?” Bailey said to VOA.
National law, international rights
Although Apple's human rights policy says it will comply with higher standards of international human rights, it also says that when the national law conflicts with international values, “we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights.”
That appears to mean that the company will not lobby for worker rights if those conflict with national laws.
Michael A. Santoro, co-editor-in-chief at Business and Human Rights Journal and professor of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University, called the policy “very disappointing." He said Apple is facing an extremely difficult subject, but he said it appears the company did not fully think through what the policy would mean.
Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch, said Apple has two human rights models: one for the American public, consumers, shareholders and even some political pressure, while the other is for the actual human rights violations in China.
China Labor Watch has published 15 reports chronicling abuses and failures among Apple's suppliers in China over the past nine years. Past incidents include poor labor conditions at Pegatron’s factories as well as Foxconn workers committing suicide.
According to years of observation of labor conditions in Apple's factories in China, Li said, "in fact, Apple pretends not to see it. But if we find out, and the press reports it, and then Apple would say ‘it happened and we want to urge our suppliers to improve,’ and put the blame on the suppliers. Apple is a profit-seeking company, and so far, no truly independent agency has worked with Apple to really monitor the labor condition."
Apple did not respond to VOA questions about the criticism from rights groups before this story published.
Anna K. Cheung, founder of NY4HK, a New York-based pro-Hong Kong human rights group, said the company has much more to do for the workers who made the products that turned the company into a technology giant. "Multinational companies like Apple have made a lot of money in China, and they should pay back with a little conscience."
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.