On Thursday this week, the BBC broadcast an episode of its flagship current affairs program Panorama: ‘Apple’s Broken Promises’ – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04vs348 – which seems to have stirred up a bit of a whirlwind. Apple is not at all happy about the content of the programme, but the BBC is standing by it. The programme features some BBC undercover reporters in Shanghai China, who appear to get work for the Apple supplier Pegatron and who show some questionable working conditions at the factory. The film shows them working shifts which lasted more than 12 hours, falling asleep on the job and being instructed to check off certain boxes during recruitment, which suggest that they have agreed to certain working hours, when in fact they are given no choice. In the second half of the programme, reporter Richard Bilton travels to Indonesia, where we see a child as young as 14 who is found to be working in a tin mine. The tin mined by the child could end up (via illegal smelters) in Apple’s and other electronic firms’ products.
Apple’s response on Friday morning was to publish a letter, in which it says that it’s doing more than others on improving conditions for the workers and although it admits that there is more work to do, a lot of progress has been made already. It also argues that refusing tin from Indonesia and sourcing it from elsewhere would be ‘the easiest thing for us to do’, but that ‘it would be the lazy and cowardly path, because it would do nothing to improve the situation for Indonesian workers’.
Clearly the spotlight has been focused ever more precisely on Apple and its social responsibility, but what about all the other electronics firms? Apple is most certainly not the only manufacture of mobile phones, tablets and computers. Whilst I always respect the BBC for uncovering injustices and for getting to the truth, I do feel that perhaps they unfairly focused on Apple, when there are many other companies which share this responsibility.
So who else should bare the responsibility here? The manufactures are commissioning their suppliers, but what about the governments in those regions and what about our responsibility as consumers? After all we’re the ones buying the products. Certainly in UK, it’s considered unacceptable to buy fur clothes or reptile skin accessories anymore. So if we’re prepared to take a stand for animals, perhaps it’s time we took the same approach when choosing our electronic devices. Of course the problem is more complicated here, because it’s not so easy for us to make an assessment about how these products were made. There are many thousands of components, which often come from a variety of sources. Should we (governments) force the manufactures to publish all supply chain information (Apple already does publish some information voluntarily). How much can we rely on the published reports though? It would appear from the BBC Panorama programme that we might need to take them with a pinch of salt.
I don’t think there’s any easy or quick solution to this problem, but it is certainly something that will be in the forefront of my mind when making any future purchases.
Find our more on Apple’s Supplier Responsibility from their website.