Reuters

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks about the iPhone 4S at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California October 4, 2011.

“Any suggestion that we don't care is patently false and offensive to us.”

Apple’s PR machine hasn’t publicly commented on the recent New York Times piece titled “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” but CEO Tim Cook apparently sent a lengthy e-mail to Apple employees, according to 9to5Mac, that begins as follows:

As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today, and I’d like to address this with you directly. We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.

If you haven’t read it, the Times piece highlights the working conditions at one of Apple’s largest manufacturing partners, Foxconn, as well as other suppliers, and is peppered with quotes from former factory workers, former Apple executives and somewhat canned statements from Foxconn itself. As you might imagine, the piece doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how consumer electronics products are manufactured, but it’s definitely worth the read if you have time.

(MORE: Should Americans Care About Apple’s iPhone Factory Conditions?)

This is a gross oversimplification of the article, but the basic gist is that supplying parts and manufacturing things for Apple is big business, so in order to win these lucrative contracts, suppliers and manufacturers have to produce the products as quickly, efficiently and cheaply as possible. Since they have to operate on such thin margins in order to win Apple’s business, according to the piece, they cut corners elsewhere to turn meaningful profits themselves.

As one former Apple executive reportedly said: “You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well. If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.” The piece spotlights long working hours, explosions caused by excessive dust at factories, and one supplier that apparently forced workers to use a toxic chemical to clean iPhone screens since the chemical dried faster than rubbing alcohol.

The Times points out that Apple began inspecting some of its partners’ factories starting back in 2006, noting, “By last year, Apple had inspected 396 facilities — including the company’s direct suppliers, as well as many of those suppliers’ suppliers — one of the largest such programs within the electronics industry.” The article continues, however, by saying “Apple has found violations in hundreds of audits, but fewer than 15 suppliers have been terminated for transgressions since 2007, according to former Apple executives.”

Which brings us back to Cook’s apparent memo – here in its entirety:

Team,

As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values. Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today, and I’d like to address this with you directly. We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us. As you know better than anyone, accusations like these are contrary to our values. It’s not who we are.

For the many hundreds of you who are based at our suppliers’ manufacturing sites around the world, or spend long stretches working there away from your families, I know you are as outraged by this as I am. For the people who aren’t as close to the supply chain, you have a right to know the facts.

Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain. As we reported earlier this month, we’ve made a great deal of progress and improved conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers. We know of no one in our industry doing as much as we are, in as many places, touching as many people.

At the same time, no one has been more up front about the challenges we face. We are attacking problems aggressively with the help of the world’s foremost authorities on safety, the environment, and fair labor. It would be easy to look for problems in fewer places and report prettier results, but those would not be the actions of a leader.

Earlier this month we opened our supply chain for independent evaluations by the Fair Labor Association. Apple was in a unique position to lead the industry by taking this step, and we did it without hesitation. This will lead to more frequent and more transparent reporting on our supply chain, which we welcome. These are the kinds of actions our customers expect from Apple, and we will take more of them in the future.

We are focused on educating workers about their rights, so they are empowered to speak up when they see unsafe conditions or unfair treatment. As you know, more than a million people have been trained by our program.

We will continue to dig deeper, and we will undoubtedly find more issues. What we will not do — and never have done — is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain. On this you have my word. You can follow our progress at apple.com/supplierresponsibility.

To those within Apple who are tackling these issues every day, you have our thanks and admiration. Your work is significant and it is changing people’s lives. We are all proud to work alongside you.

Tim

The takeaway is that Cook is “outraged” by the accusations, yet concedes that there are inherent “challenges” when it comes to finding problems across Apple’s entire supply chain. “We will continue to dig deeper, and we will undoubtedly find more issues,” he says.

Where we see the biggest divergence between Apple’s stance and the Times piece is the promise Cook makes toward the end of the memo: “What we will not do — and never have done — is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain.”

(MORE: Will the World Ever See Fair Trade iPads?)

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