Apple Computer Inc. is having an iPod-related public relations headache this week, following a report by a British newspaper on working conditions at Chinese factories where the popular music player is built.
The Mail on Sunday reported that a Chinese factory that manufactures iPods employs 200,000 workers who live in dormitories where visitors are not permitted. Workers toil for 15-hour days for as little as $50 per month, according to the article.
As Mac fan sites buzzed with debate over the report, Apple issued a statement saying it is investigating the matter.
"Apple is committed to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible," the company statement said.
Apple said it is "investigating the allegations regarding working conditions in the iPod manufacturing plant in China." It added, "We do not tolerate any violations of our supplier code of conduct."
IPod factory workers are employed by Taiwanese contract manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., also known by the brand Foxconn Electronics Inc. The relationship between Apple and Hon Hai is typical in the electronics industry, where manufacturing is frequently handled by contract builders.
The working conditions, as described in the British newspaper article, aren't unusual, said Karin Mak, a project coordinator at a nonprofit watchdog organization called Sweatshop Watch.
"It's very common," she said. "These types of conditions are very typical, unfortunately."
Apple's six-page "Supplier Code of Conduct" — posted at http://www.apple.com/environment — would seem to prohibit the sort of treatment described in the article.
"Apple suppliers must uphold the human rights of workers, to treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the international community," reads a passage near the beginning of the document. The guidelines dictate that workers should be restricted to 60-hour workweeks except in unusual circumstances.
Apple has often celebrated its anti-corporate image, with its "Think different" marketing slogan and its use of figures such as John Lennon and Gandhi for ad campaigns.
That Northern California sensibility makes it all the more noticeable when activists accuse Apple of having bad karma.
Over the past year, environmentalists went after Apple for not having a full-fledged computer recycling program, unlike its competitors. In May, Apple beefed up its recycling program, in which customers can recycle old machines for free with the purchase of a new one.
More recently, some activists are going after the company for imposing digital-rights-management software on iTunes and the iPod, which some are portraying as a way to prevent consumers from using other software or hardware to enjoy their music collections in the future. Last weekend, activists turned up at Apple stores in seven cities across the country to protest the company's tactics.
On Mac user Web sites, the debate over the Chinese iPod factory article has some customers accusing the British newspaper of picking on their favorite company's hot product. "I think this is a piece of sensationalist journalism which uses the ipod popularity to make a catchy headline and make a story," wrote one reader at the Web site for Macworld magazine.