Mind the gap: Apple’s code of conduct and China’s labour laws

When Apple, one of the world’s most secretive companies, was winning plaudits for finally revealing the names of its supplier companies in its 2012 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report last Friday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked.

Apple boasts in the report of being the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association, and places great emphasis on reducing excessive overtime by limiting work hours to 60 hours per week – “except in emergencies or unusual circumstances.”

Unfortunately, the report itself admits that 62 percent of the 229 facilities inspected were not in compliance with the 60 hour limit and that at 93 facilities, more than half the workforce exceeded the 60 hour limit during at least one week of the audit.

But the point is not really whether supplier companies comply with Apple’s own standards but whether or not they comply with the legal standards of the country they operate it. In China, the standard work week is 40 hours, with overtime being limited to another 36 hours per month, which averages out at a maximum legal limit of 49 hours a week, eleven hours less than Apple’s limit.

Apple’s Code of Conduct stresses of course that: “Under no circumstances shall work weeks exceed the maximum permitted under applicable laws and regulations.” But very few factory workers in China work less than 50 hours a week, and so we should not be surprised if employees at Apple supplier factories are working in excess of the Chinese legal limit, especially given the results of Apple’s progress report. We can’t say this is for sure however because even in the new post-Steve Jobs era of openness, Apple still does not reveal which factories commit what violations.

Apple’s Supplier Responsibility Progress Report would be a lot more helpful and meaningful if it went one or two steps further and broke the report down into individual countries and showed to what extent the individual suppliers in those countries complied with the law as well as Apple’s own standards.

This would not be such an issue if Apple’s standards and China’s labour laws were more in sync but an eleven hour gap between the maximum working hours permitted each week is something Apple needs to think about.
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