Apple JUST Got Around to Banning 'Bonded Servitude' in its Factories 

By Kate Knibbs on at

Apple has banned 'bonded servitude,' which means it won't let its supplier factories make their new hires work for free to pay for the costs of hiring them. Good!!! And also: Why the hell is this just happening now?

When Apple gears up to make a new product, its supplier factories go on hiring sprees. To offset the cost of finding people to make the components of iPhones, factories used to saddle the low-paid workers with the cost of how much it took to hire them. This means that people who want to work in an Apple supplier factory often had to start their jobs in major debt. Bloomberg reported this policy change, which went into effect in October but was just announced today as part of the company's annual supplier audit:

Apple's product cadence, which requires a quick buildup to meet demand once a new iPhone or iPad is introduced, requires a hiring spree. Suppliers often turn to third-party recruiters to find workers. These workers, frequently from countries foreign to where a factory is located, are charged fees in exchange for the job, sometimes more than one month's pay.

The workers who haven't worked enough to settle their debt often get their passports taken by the factories until they repay their debt, according to Jeff Williams, the Apple senior vice president of operations.

Criticism about the conditions at Apple's factories and supplier factories has persisted for years, especially after reports that workers at its Foxconn factory had been pressured to sign pledges not to kill themselves because other workers kept killing themselves due to the awful living conditions.

Problems with the way factory workers get treated haven't completely gone away: BBC investigation last December showed brutal conditions at an Apple parts manufacturer's factory in Indonesia.

Apple's most recent audit highlights how important it is for the company to make sure the people who work in the factories that make the parts that make it all its money are not horribly abused. "We will not stop until every person in our supply chain is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve," Williams wrote. Again, good! The harder it is to force people into the modern version of indentured servitude, the better.

But before we start patting Apple on the back, let's not. Expectations shouldn't be so low that we applaud when tech companies forbid horrendous, abusive behaviour. This should've been prohibited from the beginning.

That Apple hasn't made it a priority until now to explicitly forbid bonded servitude is evidence that this company looked the other way for way too long. After all, Apple knew that at least eight of its supplier factories were using bonded labour back in 2013, two audit reports ago. It is disturbing that the company waited for years to explicitly ban the practice across the board.

Apple isn't just cracking down on factory worker abuse. It's also attempting to eliminate "conflict materials," which are basically the blood diamonds of the tech supply world, the minerals that are either used to fund armed conflicts or mined by children or criminals. Again, very very good. But also very very overdue, and an example of why tech companies' supply chains need to be intensely scrutinized. [Bloomberg]