One big reason why multinational firms send jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs, overseas is to avoid US worker safety and environmental laws. Many of us remember the Bhopal tragedy in India in which as many as 15,000 people died from a poisonous gas release at a plant run by Union Carbide, due in large part to lax safety standards.

What people don’t know is that many companies, including Apple, may be replicating the same disregard for environmental protection and worker safety laws in China according to a coalition of Chinese environmental groups. Not through direct ownership of the plants that produce components for Apple products but by relying upon suppliers with a record of environmental pollution and employee related deaths:

Despite its claim to be a leading promoter of corporate ethics worldwide, the maker of iPads and iPhones came joint bottom among 29 major IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.

“Behind their stylish image, Apple products have a side many do not know about – pollution and poison. This side is hidden deep within the company’s secretive supply chain,” claims a statement by the 36 groups involved in the Green Choice Initiative.

Many popular products and name brands that you know, love and may own outsource the production of components and purchase materials for mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices to suppliers in China, many of which have a dubious record of environmental safety. As the report by the coalition (written version in Chinese only) indicates, these suppliers have a history of environmental pollution, low pay and worker deaths resulting from their exposure to heavy metals.

Of all the IT firms operating in China, Apple heads the list of major companies who have been most secretive about their use of such suppliers. This flies in the face of their image as an open, transparent company dedicated to social responsibility and ethical conduct in its dealings with its suppliers. The result? Apple, like many international companies has taken advantage of the corruption and lax regulation in China to keep their costs low at the expense of people’s lives.

In recent years, more than 3,000 children have been diagnosed with unsafe levels of lead in their blood in a series of heavy-metal contamination outbreaks near smelting plants. Many of the facilities provided materials used in the batteries and casings for foreign IT firms. […]

The authors say Apple’s suppliers have been involved in breaches of environmental regulations. The report noted waste discharge violations in recent years at several Chinese firms that are thought to be part of Apple’s supply chain.

Of course, we can’t know for certain, because Apple, like many firms, refuses to disclose who are its suppliers in China. They hide behind claims of confidentiality while openly touting their environmentally friendly and responsible conduct based on “Codes of Conduct” (like the one for Apple I linked to above). In short, in all likelihood these firms, including Apple, are lying to the public when they claim they live up to their own ethical standards for insuring compliance with environmental and safety standards by their supply chain:

Following the supply trail, the investigators found that Shanghang Huaqiang Battery – which was implicated in the lead poisoning of 121 children in Fujian province last year – was a key equipment manufacturer for Narada Power Source. A screen grab of the latter’s website claims it is a supplier for Vodafone, BT, and other leading global mobile telecoms brands. They also discovered several other violations, including the discharge of pollution into a Dongguan sewer by a Hong Kong-listed supplier of two multinational computer manufacturers.

Apple claims that it requires its suppliers to:

… identify, evaluate, and control worker exposure to hazardous chemical, biological, and physical agents. Suppliers must eliminate chemical hazards where possible. Where chemical hazards cannot be eliminated, Suppliers shall provide appropriate engineering controls such as closed systems and ventilation. Where appropriate engineering controls are not possible, Suppliers shall establish appropriate administrative controls such as safe work procedures. In all cases, Suppliers shall provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment. […]

Apple’s official policy for suppliers also states that:

[E]nvironmental considerations are an integral part of our business practices. Suppliers shall commit to reducing the environmental impact of their designs, manufacturing processes, and waste emissions.

Yet Apple has refused to disclose to the coalition of Chinese environmental activists and other environmental groups the names of its suppliers so that the coalition can verify that Apple is living up to its own standards for requiring environmental protection and worker safety from those unnamed suppliers. Reasonable people can only infer that Apple has something to hide.

Apple, and all the other IT companies who do business in China, can’t have it both ways. They can’t publicly clap themselves on their fictional corporate backs while at the same time using suppliers who are responsible for the poisoning of children and the deaths of workers in violation of these largely ignored “codes of conduct” such as the one Apple published to the world as a sign it is a good “Corporate Citizen.” They can’t sit back and plead ignorance when the companies in China they use as suppliers are known polluters who endanger lives:

The investigation – carried out by a coalition of 34 Chinese environmental groups – traced a link between lead and cadmium contamination cases and the production of materials for mobile phone batteries and computer circuit boards for foreign companies.

Their findings suggest corporate promises at home of clean production, transparency and accountability can be lost overseas in the complex myriad of supply chains.

I doubt the topic of environmental safety and the role played by multinational IT firms in China came up in the recent high level discussions between President Obama and Chinese president Hu Jintao. I doubt it comes up during lower level discussions much either. It is in neither country’s supposed interest to pursue the matter. Or should I say it isn’t in the economic interests of the Chinese firms and multinational companies who operate in China precisely so they can avoid the restrictions of environmental regulations and worker safety laws.

But it does matter to the many unemployed people in America and to the underpaid workers at these Chinese companies, and to the people who live near the locations where they do their dirty business on behalf of Apple and other multinational IT companies. These multinational corporations, who loudly proclaim their adherence to ethical standards of accountability and environmentally sound practices, are more than likely lying to you and me and to all the people of China and the United States and wherever else they sell their tainted wares.

For the only true value that Apple and others adhere to is the one founded on the principle of “Profit above all else” or indeed, “Profit no matter the cost to others.” Multinational firms don’t care how many kids they poison in China or workers who die from unsafe practices as long as they can claim the blood can’t be traced to their hands. Obviously, that was the one lesson major corporations learned from Bhopal–never own the factory that poisons the people who live near it; just buy your supplies from the companies that do.

As for the unemployed and underemployed people in America, well we all know what they think of us: we are just a commodity to them, cows to be milked for all we are worth until the money we still have has all dried up and vanished into Swiss Bank accounts. Just remember that the next time you buy a computer or iPod or whatever number of G’s cell phone you just have to have.

And remember this: people are being poisoned and jobs are being lost so Apple’s stock price, and the stock price of all these other companies can be boosted up, Up, UP! for the benefit of a few corporate executives and shareholders. You and they are just commodities to be exploited, nothing more.

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