January 19, 2011 4:04 pm

Apple faces pollution storm in China

A group of 36 Chinese environmental groups has accused Apple of failing to address concerns over pollution and worker health issues in factories supplying components for its gadgets.  

In a report to be published on Thursday, the groups rank Apple last in a list of 29 multinational technology companies based on how each company dealt with inquiries about pollution and occupational health hazard incidents at factories in their supply chain.

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The report underscores a growing environmental awareness in China and the nascent attempts by the country’s heavily monitored and restricted non-governmental organisations to draw attention to important social issues.

The environmental groups’ condemnation of Apple is the result of a more than year-long attempt at influencing environmental and worker health protection practices at 29 multinationals.

The groups list HP, BT, Alcatel-Lucent, Vodafone, Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp and Hitachi as positive examples that responded to their inquiries and took some steps to adjust problematic practices at their suppliers or improve supervision systems.

A number of other technology companies, including Nokia, LG, SingTel, and Ericsson are also cited for being unresponsive and not taking action to correct the problems, but none fares as badly as Apple, which is criticised for being evasive and not responding to the NGOs’ concerns.  

One of the health hazard cases the groups say Apple did not respond to was the poisoning of workers at Lianjian Technology, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Wintek, which produces touchscreen modules for Apple mobile devices.

In that case, 49 workers were hospitalised and diagnosed as having been poisoned with the chemical cleaning agent n-hexane in 2009, a case widely publicised in Chinese state media. The workers claim to have been left with debilitating illnesses and say they have not received any response to complaints they sent to Apple.

A spokesman for Wintek said the factory immediately stopped using the cleaner and has greatly improved working conditions at its factories since then.

When the Chinese environmental groups brought this and another case to Apple’s attention, the NGOs say the company refused to confirm or deny whether the polluting companies were their suppliers and would not respond further.

“Apple behaved differently from the other big brands and seemed totally complacent and unresponsive,” said to Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a well-known Chinese NGO and the main author of the report.

An Apple spokesman said the company had a rigorous auditing programme that investigates its suppliers and other parts of the business supply chain. This included auditing suppliers to its suppliers.

Steve Dowling, the spokesman, referred to reports that the company publishes.

According to the 2010 report, which includes conditions in 2009, 61 per cent of 102 audited facilities complied with Apple’s rules on occupational injury prevention, and 83 per cent were found in compliance with prevention of chemical exposure.

Additional reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco and Robin Kwong in Taipei.

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