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Apple promises to 'investigate' complaints of labor violations by Chinese supplier

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Apple has dispatched a team of investigators to one of its suppliers in northern Jiangsu province in China after a joint report made by two labor watchdog groups accused the iPhone maker's supplier of serious labor, safety, health and environmental offenses.

Apple spokesperson Chris Gaither told the New York Times that Apple is set to conduct a follow-up visit to a Suqian-based facility that manufactures aluminum casings for the MacBook and iPad. The facility is owned and managed by Taiwan-based Catcher Technology. This comes after labor activists China Labor Watch (CLW) and Green America released a report chastising Apple for failing to follow through on last year's promises to improve safety and worker conditions in the Catcher facility.

In April last year, CLW conducted an undercover investigation in Catcher's Suqian plant, which also manufactures components for other technology companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Sony, HTC and Motorola, and found less-than-optimal worker conditions. CLW says it privately reported the results of its investigation to Apple, which conducted its own investigation and vowed to fix the problems.

A statement released by Apple on Thursday says it has found "concrete areas for improvement" during its latest annual audit of the plant in May and that it "worked with Catcher to develop a corrective action plan."

"We had scheduled a follow-up visit next month to review their progress but have dispatched a team there immediately to investigate this report," Apple says.

CLW, however, says it found additional offenses in its latest investigation that were not discovered in 2013, suggesting that conditions at the Suqian factory may actually be getting worse. The latest report [pdf] found "significant amounts of aluminum-magnesium shreddings on the floor and dust particles in the air," a fire hazard, and locked fire exits.

However, Apple says Catcher consistently "exceeds international safety standards" and uses aluminum wet-polishing systems to reduce the risk of fire. In Apple's quarterly inspections, the company says Catcher "has made same-day repairs of broken and expired fire extinguishers, unblocked corridors and fire exits, and added missing emergency exit signs."

Workers were also reportedly made to sign a waiver saying they had received safety training even though they hadn't. The investigators also found that Suqian employed student workers 16 to 18 years old signed on as adults and that workers are subject to an average of six hours unpaid overtime every month, which means Catcher owes approximately $290,000 in unpaid wages to its employees. This is a far different picture from what Apple claims.

"We track and report the weekly working hours for more than 1 million workers, and, through the end of August, Catcher has averaged 95 percent compliance with our 60-hour workweek limit this year," Apple says.

The report also says that Catcher dumps industrial fluids and chemical wastes into groundwater and surrounding rivers.

This comes just days before Apple is set to unveil its upcoming iPhone 6, one of the most hotly anticipated pieces of technology in history. CLW says the timing of its report is "in part related to Apple's press event" and the company's recent announcement that it was banning the use of two toxic chemicals in its facilities.

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