Apple knew a supplier was using child labor but took 3 years to fully cut ties, despite the company’s promises to hold itself to the ‘highest standards,’ report says

Apple CEO Tim Cook in China, March 2019
  • Apple discovered that Suyin Electronics, one of its Chinese-based suppliers, relied on child labor on multiple occasions, but still took three years to fully cut ties, The Information reported on Thursday.
  • Ten former members of Apple’s supplier responsibility team told The Information the company has refused or has been slow to stop doing business with suppliers that repeatedly violate its labor policies when doing so would hurt its profits. 
  • Apple has faced intense criticism recently amid reports that it relies on forced Uyghur labor and protests over poor working conditions and wage theft by workers that make its products.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Apple is back under the spotlight over labor conditions in its supply chain following an explosive report from The Information on Thursday that revealed new details about the company’s reluctance to cut ties with suppliers who violate its ethics policies.

According to the report, Apple learned in 2013 that Suyin Electronics, a China-based company that (at the time) made parts for its MacBooks, was employing underage workers, and despite telling Suyin to address the issue or risk losing business, Apple discovered additional workers as young as 14 years old during an audit just three months later.

But rather than immediately cutting ties with Suyin for violating its supply chain ethics policies – which prohibit child labor and which Apple claims are the “highest standards” – Apple continued to rely on the company for more than three years, according to The Information.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Suyin could not be reached for comment.

Ten former members of Apple’s supplier responsibility team told The Information that Suyin wasn’t an isolated incident, and that Apple had refused or was slow to stop doing business with suppliers that had repeatedly violated labor laws or failed to improve workplace safety when it would have cut into its profits.

Apple similarly refused to cut ties with Biel Crystal, one of its two suppliers of glass iPhone screens – despite a consistently poor workplace safety record, Apple employees’ own concerns, and Biel executives explicitly admitting that improving safety wasn’t worth it because doing so had actually led to less business from Apple – because cutting ties would have left Apple with less financial leverage over its remaining supplier, Lens Technology, according to The Information.

Biel did not respond to a request for comment.

In an illustration of just how intertwined Apple has become with unethical labor practices, The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Lens Technology itself relies on forced labor from thousands of Uyghurs that the Chinese government has displaced from their homes in Xinjiang.

While US lawmakers have proposed legislation aimed on curbing American companies’ ability to use forced Uyghur labor, Apple sought to weaken the bill, The New York Times reported last month. (Apple took issue with that claim, telling The Times that it “did not lobby against” the bill but rather had “constructive discussions” with congressional staffers).

Apple has long been criticized over the labor practices of its suppliers, particularly in China but increasingly in other countries including India, where workers at an iPhone factory rioted after accusing management of withholding their pay.

In November, Apple was also forced to cut ties with its second-largest iPhone manufacturer, Pegatron, after discovering the company had violated labor laws by relying on “student workers” who were in practice doing work that had nothing to do with their degrees.

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Huawei reportedly worked with 4 additional companies to build surveillance tools that track people by ethnicity, following recent revelations that it tested a ‘Uighur alarm’

Huawei China
  • Huawei has worked with at least four partner companies to develop surveillance technologies that claim to monitor people by ethnicity, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
  • Last week, The Post reported that Huawei in 2018 had tested a “Uighur alarm” — an AI facial recognition tool that claimed to identify members of the largely Muslim minority group and alert Chinese authorities.
  • Huawei told the The Post that the tool was “simply a test,” but according to Saturday’s report, Huawei has developed multiple such tools.
  • The reports add to growing concern over China’s extensive surveillance and oppression of Uyghurs and other minority groups, as well as increasing use of racially discriminatory surveillance tools and practices by US law enforcement.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Huawei tested an AI-powered facial-recognition technology that could trigger a “Uighur alarm” for Chinese authorities when it identified a person from the persecuted minority group in 2018, The Washington Post reported last week.

At the time, Huawei spokesperson Glenn Schloss told The Post that the tool was “simply a test and it has not seen real-world application.”

But a new investigation published by The Post on Saturday found that Huawei has worked with dozens of security firms to build surveillance tools – and that products it developed in partnership with four of those companies claimed to be able to identify and monitor people based on their ethnicity.

Documents publicly available on Huawei’s website detailed the capabilities of those ethnicity-tracking tools as well as more than 2,000 product collaborations, according to The Post. The publication also reported that after it contacted Huawei, the company took the website offline temporarily before restoring the site with only 38 products listed.

FILE PHOTO: Huawei headquarters building is pictured in Reading, Britain July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Huawei headquarters building is pictured in Reading

“Huawei opposes discrimination of all types, including the use of technology to carry out ethnic discrimination,” a Huawei spokesperson told Business Insider. “We provide general-purpose ICT [information and communication technology] products based on recognized industry standards.”

“We do not develop or sell systems that identify people by their ethnic group, and we do not condone the use of our technologies to discriminate against or oppress members of any community,” the spokesperson continued. “We take the allegations in the Washington Post’s article very seriously and are investigating the issues raised within.”

Huawei worked with Beijing Xintiandi Information Technology, DeepGlint, Bresee, and Maiyuesoft on products that made a variety of claims about estimating, tracking, and visualizing people’s ethnicities, as well as other Chinese tech companies on tools to suppress citizens’ complaints about wrongdoing by local government officials and analyze “voiceprint” data, according to The Post.

Beijing Xintiandi Information Technology, DeepGlint, Bresee, and Maiyuesoft could not be reached for comment.

Human rights groups, media reports, and other independent researchers have extensively documented China’s mass surveillance and detainment of as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minority groups in internment camps, where reports allege they are subjected to torturesexual abuse, and forced labor for little or no pay.

To help it build the surveillance apparatus that enables such widespread detainment, the Chinese government has at times turned to the country’s technology firms.

“This is not one isolated company. This is systematic,” John Honovich, the founder of IPVM, a research group that first discovered the 2018 test, told The Post. He added that “a lot of thought went into making sure this ‘Uighur alarm’ works.”

In October 2019, the US Commerce Department blacklisted 28 Chinese government agencies and tech companies including China’s five “AI champions” – Hikvision, Dahua, SenseTime, Megvii, and iFlytek – on its banned “entity list,” thus preventing US firms from exporting certain technologies to them.

Still, some of those blacklisted companies have managed to continue exporting their technologies to Western countries, and BuzzFeed News reported last year that US tech firms, including Amazon, Apple, and Google, have continued selling those companies’ products to US consumers via online marketplaces.

In the US, law enforcement agencies and even schools have also increased their reliance on facial recognition software and other AI-powered surveillance technologies, despite growing evidence that such tools exhibit racial and gender bias.

But recent pushback from activists, tech ethicists, and employees has pushed some tech companies to temporarily stop selling facial recognition tools to law enforcement, and some US cities have issued moratoriums on their use, highlighting some divides between approaches to policing in the US and China.

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