More Proof That Corporations Won't Reform Unless Activists and Journalists Force Them to

Report demonstrates that Apple's self-monitoring isn't worth much, while outside pressure can create change.

Drivers who use hands-free virtual assistants like Apple's Siri can be distracted by the technology, a new US study has found

Apple’s newest progress report, on its labor conditions in China, was released February 11.

“We care deeply about every worker in Apple's global supply chain,” stated senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams upon release of the report. “To improve their lives, we continue to proactively tackle issues that are part of the broader challenges facing our world today — human rights and equality, environmental protection, and education. We have long championed these causes, and 2014 was a year of tremendous progress."

The timing of Apple’s report is at least a little suspicious: it came less than 24 hours after a new China Labor Watch report that connects the company to ongoing labor abuses. The group is an NGO, formed in 2000, to fight for worker’s rights in China. The report focuses on the Pegatron Shanghai factory, a subsidiary of the Taiwanese-owned Pegatron Group and a major electronics supplier for Apple. The supplier now produces core products, like the iPhone 6 and iPad Mini.

One of the most striking takeaways from the report concerns the impact that activism, and subsequent media coverage, has had on Apple’s labor reforms. While Apple frequently implies its modifications have come about as a result of self-monitoring, there is a direct correlation between the coverage of labor abuses and shifts in company policy. After many learned about the suicides at Foxconn (the infamous Apple supplierthat has been associated with a string of labor abuses) during the summer of 2010, Foxconn wages increased. Conditions also improved after a 2012 New York Times story about the human cost of iPads. Apple also joined the Fair Labor Association and hired a third-party organization to improve its public image. Most recently, a 2014 BBC reported on the conditions of workers at Pegatron. Weekly hours decreased soon after.

The report suggests that Apple jumps from manufacturer to manufacturer in an attempt to solidify lower costs, thus naturally aligning itself with lower and lower wages. In a recent interview, one of the report's authors, Kevin Slaten, the program coordinator at China Labor Watch, explained that Pegatron was even worse than Foxconn. “For base pay alone, there’s a 21% difference. For example, the base pay for a typical production worker (after the probation period) is 2,300 RMB (about U.S.$370) at Foxconn and 1,820 RMB (U.S.$290) at Pegatron. What this doesn’t include is that Pegatron hires an enormous number of dispatch workers who are temp workers, and they save money on these temp workers because they don’t pay them full benefits and they don’t have to pay wages to them in the low season."

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Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria