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Why Apple has to give up forced labor

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Many tech websites are covering a think tank report on forced labor in China, in which Apple is mentioned as one of the many global brands whose supply chains are involved. 

I’m not quite sure why, since the report was published in March (the BBC did report it back in its day), but perhaps it is just one more example of how journalism works in echo. The origin seems to be this article from an Indian portal that mentions the report as if it were new. 

In any case, it is positive that such an important story is having more impact.

Actually, more has been done since the Australian Institute for Political Strategy (ASPI) released the Uyghurs For Sale report . But before we go any further, let’s recap those horrible accusations.

Members of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, largely Uighur Muslims, were reportedly transported to a network of “re-educational” concentration camps in the Sinkiang region and were forced to renounce their culture and religion.

After following a process of ideological discipline (and, according to some reports, torture), “graduated” inmates are forced to work in factories that are part of the supply chain of some of the most important companies in the world.

Apple is not, by far, the only one to face such an accusation. ASPI says that the supply chains of 83 “well-known global brands” have had some kind of deal with factories that use forced Uighur labor.

In addition to Apple, other top tech companies mentioned in the report are Samsung, Sony, Huawei, Amazon, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Nintendo. Car manufacturers such as BMW, Volkswagen, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz are also mentioned, and fashion brands such as Gap, Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret and Nike.

We must emphasize that the poor performance by Apple is very indirect and difficult to know. The think tank acknowledges that many of the products are made by hard-to-understand supply chains, noting that Tim Cook praised the “humane treatment of employees” displayed in one of the factories he visited, suggesting that the factory it would have hidden certain practices. 

But with the publication of this report, the company can no longer use ignorance as an excuse. Two of the companies mentioned have already taken action. In June, Adidas met with Raphaël Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament, and agreed to stop working with suppliers and subcontractors “involved in the exploitation of forced Uighur labor”. A week later, so did Lacoste .

There are still 81 brands out of the 83 mentioned that have not signed the Glucksmann campaign (Nike met with him but declined ), so it might seem strange that we are only pointing at Apple. In part, this is true. 

We do this because it is the company we are talking about at Macworld, but there are other reasons why it seems reasonable to focus attention on the Cupertino-based response in particular. The sheer scale of the company’s production, for example, means that it is both guilty of suffering if it lets it go on and capable of doing good if it refuses.

Perhaps there is no company that has enough influence to convince China to change its policies. After all, it has managed to resist sanctions from the most powerful nation in the world. But Apple has more options than most.

Some journalists have said that it is not realistic, but naive, to expect Apple to denounce the Uighurs’ deal considering that its supply chain is deeply tied to China’s economy and its income is highly dependent on the Chinese market.

Others believe Tim Cook privately condemns the persecution of Uighurs and is working to diversify Apple’s supply chain (there are reports that it is increasingly shifting its production of iPhones to India) in order to stop using the services by claiming ethical reasons. 

But it is surprising that two fashion brands with significantly less financial influence have publicly spoken out and pledged to take action.

Not that Apple is a very neutral company, or one that never speaks out on ethical issues. He recently spoke in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and, although some might say that denouncing racism is not controversial, in his statement he condemned the police forces as an institution. A glance at the current political situation in the United States shows that this will have made them lose some clients.

Tim Cook once urged climate change skeptics to stop their actions at Apple, saying: “When we work to make our devices accessible to the blind, I don’t consider the damn RSI.”

There have always been reports of inhumane working conditions in supply chains used by Apple and other tech companies, but it appears that he is working to improve it. The firm publishes an annual Report on the Progress in Supplier Responsibility every year and is committed , among other things, to “stop working with debts incurred before they occur”.

Leaving aside my opinion on the subject as a journalist, as an Apple customer I would like the company to speak out. If you take the lead, the rest of the market may follow and real change can happen. But whether this happens or not, I think it is no longer acceptable for Apple to look the other way.


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