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TUAW Fact Check: Apple using underage labor? No.

When a lot of people get their news electronically, skimming over headlines through news aggregators, RSS feeds, and retweets on Twitter, sometimes the majority of information people will get from an article comes from the headline.

When a headline leans towards the sensational side, or doesn't accurately reflect the information that's actually contained in the article, it's easy for poorly-represented news to spread like wildfire. This article from the UK's The Daily Telegraph, regarding Apple's self-initiated audit of its overseas manufacturing facilities, is a perfect example, with its attention-grabbing headline: "Apple Admits Using Child Labour." The sub-headline isn't any better: "Apple has admitted that child labour was used at the factories that build its computers, iPods and mobile phones."

Once a person reads those words, his or her knee-jerk reaction is most likely going to be one of disgust and horror. "How could you, Apple?" they might say. If this hypothetical reader owns a Mac or an iPhone, their eyes might glance over at it with anguished guilt; if they don't own any products from Apple, it's just one more reason not to buy them.

If you dig beyond the headline, however, to the meat of the Telegraph's article, where the actual reporting finally begins? Then you get a completely different story as early as the first sentence: "At least eleven 15-year-old children were discovered to be working last year in three factories which supply Apple." That's pretty far from the image conjured by the headline, of legions of school-aged children lined up in factories and slapping together MacBook Pros when they should be slapping together algebra homework. Instead, we find a relatively small number of teenaged factory workers -- reprehensible, but not unusual at all for overseas factories. The end of this first sentence is even more important, because it puts the focus where it belongs: three factories which supply Apple. Two paragraphs later, we find another very important bit of news not reflected in the headline: "Apple said the child workers are now no longer being used."

Other news sites performed better reporting on the matter, but at least one still had an easily misinterpreted headline. Read on to find out more.
Engadget's headline for its story is a bit better -- "Apple supplier audit reveals sub-minimum wage pay and records of underage labor" -- but it's still ripe for misinterpretation. The reporting at least is far better than the Telegraph; right away, Engadget notes that the reports of child labor come straight from Apple's own 2010 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, and they also note that out of 102 audited manufacturers, most of them said Apple was the only manufacturer that performed compliance checks this rigorous. That means Sony, Lenovo, Dell, HP, and all the other manufacturers out there may well have even worse working conditions at their suppliers' factories than those reflected in Apple's audit, but until or unless they perform similar checks, we have no way of knowing.

Another bit of perspective on this comes courtesy of MacRumors: "Apple in 2009 found a total of 17 instances of what it considers 'core violations' of its code of conduct, representing about 2% of core issues assessed by its auditors." Far from perfect, yes, but equally as far from the sweatshop conditions conjured up by the Telegraph's headline; in fact, if you actually read Apple's own audit, you find that 97% of its facilities were in compliance with regulations against underage labor.

Finally, the wording from Apple's audit itself, with emphasis added at key points:

"Apple discovered three facilities that had previously hired 15-year-old workers in countries where the minimum age for employment is 16. Across the three facilities, our auditors found records of 11 workers who had been hired prior to reaching the legal age, although the workers were no longer underage or no longer in active employment at the time of our audit.
In each of the three facilities, we required a review of all employment records for the year prior to our audit, as well as a complete analysis of the hiring process to clarify how underage people had been able to gain employment. Apple required each facility to develop and institute appropriate management systems-such as more thorough ID checks and verification procedures-to prevent future employment of underage workers."

Issues like underage labor, poor working environments, and substandard pay are all very real consequences of doing business with overseas suppliers. Most manufacturers are content with turning a blind eye to the whole thing, so long as the shareholders stay happy and stock prices stay high. By running comprehensive audits of its suppliers, Apple runs the risk of finding out just how poorly its suppliers treat its workers, and by publishing those results, it runs the risk of news outlets like the Telegraph blowing them out of proportion. Despite what some newspapers or news sites would have you believe, Macs and iPhones are not crafted by children, and that's partly due to Apple's performance of these audits in the first place.

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