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Labor violations are the norm at factories making high-tech gadgets.

Special report: Silicon Sweatshops

Despite strict "codes of conduct," labor rights violations are the norm at factories making the world's favorite high-tech gadgets.

findings. In its latest "supplier responsibility" update, published in February 2009, Apple found that nearly 60 percent of audited suppliers violated its code of conduct guidelines on work hours and days off.

Other common violations included under-paying for overtime and deducting salary as punishment. And Apple found a few factories that falsified records, employed under-aged laborers and hired workers who had paid recruitment fees exceeding the legal limit.

All of that raises a question: Why aren't the big brands being tougher in enforcing their codes?

Apple insists it is doing a lot. "Our audits are done across all our suppliers," said Apple spokesperson Jill Tan, in a phone interview. "It's a pretty rigorous process, and we take corrective actions as and when required. We audit aggressively, and post all results on our website."

The company's code is a "dynamic document which we continually update," Tan said, and audits are done both by Apple itself, and third-party experts.

Asked how Apple responds to those who say it's hiding behind codes that are ineffective in securing workers' basic rights, Tan said, "It's not just a matter of posturing, we look into this very meticulously. To me, we're pretty open. We don't see how we can provide more information beyond what's already available."

"I'm not sure there are many manufacturers or vendors out there who audit as aggressively as we do," said Tan. "I'm not sure there are many out there who take this as seriously as we do. Have you come across any other companies that provide this much detail in their audits?"

(Apple declined GlobalPost’s request to go beyond the public relations department and interview Bob Bainbridge, the firm's director of social responsibility for suppliers.)

Dell also rejected the idea that industry codes aren't effective. "We take exception to that," said spokesman David Frink. "Given the size and breadth of the global supply chain, full implementation of these important standards is a long-term effort to which Dell is fully committed," the firm said in a later email.

Our investigation

In May, GlobalPost covered reports of labor abuses at just one Taiwan electronics firm believed to supply Apple, Nokia and Motorola at its factories in Taiwan and China. Since then, we’ve interviewed 12 current and former workers at this same company. We heard the following new allegations:

  • For Taiwanese workers, routine violations of Apple and industry codes of conduct on work hours, days off, overtime, worker complaint mechanisms and the right to organize;
  • For Chinese workers, violations of a major electronic industry group's code of conduct on all of the above, and allegations of under-aged labor;
  • For Filipina migrant workers, "placement fees" far in excess of Taiwan regulations, with fees and deductions amounting to nearly a full year's salary — a "core" violation of Apple's code.

These allegations, which are documented throughout this series, are by no means limited to this one supplier. Taiwan's labor broker system applies to many Southeast Asians who come to work on the island. And labor rights groups have done numerous studies of the scope of the problem (see links below).

But the news is not all bleak.

In our reporting, we heard sincere commitments to deal with these issues by frustrated executives who struggle with these complex economic realities. We also learned of a groundbreaking project to improve conditions at a Taiwan supplier for HP that appeared to have excellent results. Though limited in scope, the project offers some degree of hope that the big electronics brands can do more to fix the problem.

This story included reporting from Dongguan, China.

[Next in the series: Shattered dreams. Migrant workers making gadgets at Taiwan's high-tech parks sign deals that make them modern-day indentured servants]

RESOURCES:

Labor rights groups have done numerous studies of the scope of abuses in the high-tech industry across Asia. See, for example:

Silicon Sweatshops: The series

Special Report: Silicon Sweatshops

Shattered dreams

Disposable workforce

The China connection

A promising model

Editor's note: On Thursday Nov. 19, GlobalPost's Passport section will host a conference call with co-author Jonathan Adams to discuss the Silicon Sweatshops series. Normally these calls are only open to Passport members, but this call will be open to the first 100 people to email passport@globalpost.com. It will occur at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time. If you are selected, we will send you instructions on how to participate.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-taiwan/091103/silicon-sweatshops-globalpost-investigation