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A new iPhone 4S at Apple's Beijing flagship store.
Feng Li/Getty Images
Apple has been taking a lot of heat lately for working conditions at plants making its products in China.
There've been stories in The New York Times, an hour was devoted to the subject on This American Life and there are countless blog posts and tweets, like this one from the Times asking, "Would you pay more for an iPhone if it were made in the United States?"
Of course, Apple is not the only electronics giant that manufactures its gadgets in China. And bleak working conditions have been well documented at most of the company's rivals, from Dell and Hewlett-Packard to Nokia and Sony.
Interestingly, some of the best reporting about abuses in Apple's supply chain is done by Apple itself. Each year in January the company publishes its "Supplier Responsibility Progress Report."
It is damning.
In the 2011 report, Apple reported 91 documented incidences of child labor at Apple plants. In this year's report, the company went into detail about what led to explosions at plants owned by Foxconn and Ri-Teng that together injured more than 70 people.
If you are outside of Apple it is difficult to know exactly who the company is dealing with, and what factories are manufacturing its products. You can document a problem at a factory, but proving that factory is making Apple products is another challenge. Until two weeks ago — even the names of Apple's largest suppliers were a closely guarded company secret.
And Apple's relationships with its largest suppliers are complex and tangled. Apple needs these firms. Its enormous financial success depends on them.
But some, like Pegatron and its subsidiaries Ri-Teng and Kaedar are repeat offenders. The explosion at a Ri-Teng plant was featured in the Times Thursday.
Pegatron suspended Kaedar's top executive in 2010 over allegations that Kaedar's representatives were paying kickbacks to an Apple manager in return for business. That manager, Paul Shin Devine, was criminally charged in the case. The case is pending.
Still, Apple kept working with Pegatron and Kaedar. And as recently as this fall a Kaedar plant — allegedly making Apple products — was having environmental problems. Even after the plant was cleaned up there were reports villagers had been threatened by local thugs and told to keep quiet.
Every Apple employee I have ever spoken to about these issues cares deeply about improving working conditions and environmental safety in its supply chain. But perhaps even a company as controlling as Apple can have a hard time managing a supply chain in China.