Tim Cook to address Chinese suppliers' worker issues at Apple shareholder meeting tomorrow

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Apple's annual shareholder meeting will be held tomorrow at the company's Cupertino California campus, and activists are gearing up to use the event as a springboard for their "high impact communications programs," including a continuation of issues related to working conditions among Apple's Chinese suppliers that Apple addressed at last year's meeting.

A history of attracting activism

Previous Apple shareholder meetings have been dominated by protest campaigns, such as the environment-themed conflict waged by Greenpeace and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in 2006, both of which were organized by "toxics campaigner" Iza Kruszewska.

At that year's meeting, Steve Jobs suggested that Greenpeace hire staff with engineering backgrounds who could understand the issues involved, and insisted that Apple does more to push environmentally sound, innovative manufacturing techniques than other PC makers, blasting the criteria behind Greenpeace's highly publicized 'Greener Guide to Electronics,' which ranked a random assortment of manufacturers according to goal commitments listed on their websites.

In 2007, the Teamsters and AFL-CIO unions challenged the company's executive compensation reporting and tried to garner media attention around a shareholder proposal that would have ineffectually pleaded that the company not backdate stock options again, had the symbolic gesture not failed to pass.

In 2009, several shareholders in attendance expressed dissatisfaction with Apple for granting shareholders only a very short few minutes to comment and query executives, particularly after giving so much airtime to special interests pushing political agendas that have regularly been rejected by the majority of the company's shareholders.

Cook talks China

Last year, Apple's shareholder meeting seemed to escape from its usual onslaught of activism, although the issue of Apple's environmental policies and its supplier responsibility issues in China were raised by Tim Cook himself, who stated "we have the highest standards," adding that Apple is the most transparent in its auditing and reporting than any other company, reporting actual problems and taking real action.

Cook also noted that Apple had forced reimbursements of $300 million from its suppliers to workers and has involved governments to get involved and understand the issues. "We are doing the heavy lifting," Cook said. "I am really proud of the changes we have forced in," noting that Apple's actions "will help more than Apple," because the company is pushing to change how business is done.

Spitfire outrage gearing up for shareholder meeting showdown

This year, Cook is likely to be pressed further on the issues, with at least one petition group planning to bring pages of printed out names of online petitioners. Multiple groups collecting petitions related to Apple's suppliers have sought to bring petitions to Apple's corporate headquarters, and then to Apple retail stores after their "deliveries" failed to gain the necessary attention. Retail employees have since stopped accepting the boxes of printed names, leading to efforts to bring the printouts to Apple's shareholder meeting instead.

The original petition, started at the end of January by Mark Shields, pleaded with Mac fans to demand that Apple "release a worker protection strategy for new product releases," claiming that repetitive stress injuries and suicides "typically spike because of the incredible pressure to meet quotas timed to releases."

Shields didn't disclose in the petition, nor in his subsequent media interviews, that he is actually a director at the Washington DC based Spitfire Strategies, "a consulting firm offering advice on strategic communications and campaign planning for a wide range of non-profits and foundations," as IFOAppleStores recently reported.

Spitfire describes itself on its website as being "dedicated to helping nonprofits and foundations create and implement high impact communications programs to achieve their social change goals." In its report, IFOAppleStores stated Shields "said he posted the petition 'as a private citizen,' and that it had 'nothing whatsoever to do with my professional life at Spitfire.'"

Shields' Change.org petition and the SumofUs.org group operating its own petition (involved with printing out names to deliver to Apple) are both coordinating their initiatives through the same public relations firm, an effort that has given them significant media attention and notoriety in being able to sustain media attention.

Petitions drives ignore facts in Apple's public reports

Both groups took credit for Apple's announcement that it would be working with the Fair Labor Association to independently audit its suppliers' factories, despite the petitions getting started after Apple announced its plans.

Of the two groups' petitions, Shields' Change.org drive focuses on suicide and injuries it relates to Apple's scheduling, despite Shield's admission that he has no facts to back up the claim that there is any connection between deaths or injuries and Apple's quotas or other supplier requirements.

Shields' petition asks for a action plan on worker suicides, while ignoring Apple's publicly available, annual Supplier Responsibility reports, which document in detail what the company is doing and has done.

This year, Apple says it "surveyed more than 1000 workers about their quality of life, sources of stress, psychological health, and other work-related factors," noting that "the team designed the questionnaire, delivered and collected it, and tabulated the results without Foxconn’s involvement." Apple also reported that it:

• Interviewed workers face to face, met separately with their managers, and evaluated working and living conditions firsthand.

• Reviewed the facts of each suicide and the known circumstances behind them.

• Evaluated Foxconn’s management of the crisis, assessing the effectiveness of counseling services and emergency response systems.

The report also details other actions Apple took in partnership with Foxconn, including the implementation of an "employee assistance program (EAP) that focuses on maintaining employee mental health and expanding social support networks. In addition, they have begun the process of expanding operations to other parts of China, enabling workers to be closer to their home provinces."

Belated action demanded after the fact on n-hexane

The SumOfUs.org petition focuses instead on specific injuries (and four deaths) sustained by workers at a Wintek plant who in 2009 were instructed by the factory to clean iPhone screens using n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nervous system failure. The company subsequently banned the use of the chemical and paid workers bonuses and made other financial compensations.

However, the SumOfUs.org petition falsely implied Apple directed the use of the toxic chemical to save itself money, and states that it continues to do so rather than using safer alternatives while being fully aware that it will hurt workers.

The SumOfUs petition described "a young girl" who "every day, during her 12+ hour shifts, six days a week, she repetitively swipes tens of thousands of them. She spends those hours inhaling n-hexane, a potent neurotoxin used to clean iPhone glass, because it dries a few seconds faster than a safe alternative. After just a few years on the line, she will be fired because the neurological damage from the n-hexane and the repetitive stress injuries to her wrists and hands make her unable to continue performing up to standard," adding that "scenarios like this have been all too real in Apple’s Chinese supply chain."

In realty, Apple disclosed the use of n-hexane at one site as a violation of its "worker endangerment" policies in its Supplier Accountability report, noting that "we required the facility to discontinue use of n-hexane, to fix the factory’s ventilation systems, and to implement improvements to their management systems for Environmental Health and Safety."

This was reported months prior to the petition, indicating that the petition was either simply ignorant of the facts Apple was making publicly available, or purposely misleading to incite sensational reaction.

SumOfUs.org describes the incident as occurring "in an Apple factory" and states, "If more people know about what we [workers hurt by n-hexane] went through, Apple will feel pressured to change so other workers don’t have to suffer like we did," while at the same time referencing Apple's public reporting of the violation, which addressed that rather than needing to "feel pressured" to do something, Apple addressed the issue almost a year ago to prevent others from being similarly harmed by unsafe conditions at one of its suppliers' facilities.

Greenpeace similarly made vast and often vague claims about Apple's environmental policies that implied and suggested all sorts of abuses that were not true about the company, from using prison labor to dumping reclaimed waste on children in third world nations. At the same time, Greenpeace largely ignored the very real environmental lapses of Apple's competitors because they did not result in media attention and were virtually worthless to use in fundraising.