In China, Apple faces its "Nike moment"?

Tue Mar 6, 2012 8:41am EST
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By Terril Yue Jones

BEIJING (Reuters) - As Apple Inc, the world's most valuable listed company, braces itself for a report into alleged poor working conditions among its army of low-cost suppliers in China, it could heed the lessons from another big-brand retailer that faced similar issues two decades ago.

"Apple is facing its 'Nike moment'," said Teresa Cheng, international campaign coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), referring to accusations in the 1990s that suppliers to sportswear retailer Nike Inc mistreated workers.

Such is the California-based iPad and iPhone maker's dominance of the technology sector that its response to the non-profit Fair Labor Association's (FLA) report - expected this week - could affect conditions across China's vast electronics supply chain.

Nike was battered in the media and by public opinion because its suppliers in Asia forced employees to work long hours without breaks, and paid them a pittance without benefits.

The company's response - and what some say are the mistakes it made - could offer a roadmap for Apple, which has faced similar bad press following deaths and reports of suicides at its China supply firms.

Three workers at Foxconn Technology Co Ltd died in a blast last year when dust from polishing iPads ignited, and labor rights groups have said 18 workers at Foxconn sites killed themselves, or tried to, in 2010.

The vast majority of Foxconn's 1.2 million employees are involved in assembling Apple products, according to media reports.

Apple hired teams from the FLA to interview 35,000 workers at three of Foxconn's sprawling factories, which put together iPads and iPhones as well as gadgets for other well-known brands.   Continued...

A protester wearing a mask of Apple Inc founder Steve Jobs performs a street drama with local and mainland Chinese university students playing the role of Foxconn workers during a protest in Hong Kong May 7, 2011.  A workers' concern group demonstrated on Saturday to protest against what they say are dire working conditions of workers from Foxconn and Apple.     REUTERS/Bobby Yip