Smartphones have become a central feature of life. It is estimated that 25% of the world’s population will own a smartphone by 2016, with an estimate 76% using a smartphone in the UK.
Developments in technology are rapid with Samsung releasing 52 models in 2014 alone. The Korean technological giant currently own over 30% of the global market share.
But increasing responsibility must accompany increasing smartphone and tablet use. As a leading market, it is time for technological companies to commit to ethical production, manufacturing and distribution of their products.
The past few years have followed increasing attempts to create a more ethical reputation for major technology manufacturers. Apple and Samsung have both pledged to become more ethical, and both have made headway with considering the production and distribution of their products. But is Samsung more ethical than Apple, or have Apple made greater progress?
According to a report in 2014, global concern with maintaining ethical standards has increased in recent years.
“Interest has been spurred on by the ascendancy of global brands like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, combined with growing public concern about exploitation and child labour in Chinese electronics factories, as well as fears about the use of conflict minerals sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
So what have Samsung and Apple, the two leading smartphone manufacturers, done to encourage ethical values?
Ethical Consumer, a UK company that focuses on “researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies”, has analysed 14 technology companies, and awarded each a score out of 20. The ratings were based on factors such as worker’s rights, pollution, irresponsible marketing and company ethos.
It seems that no smartphone can easily be described as ‘ethical’. The highest rating was awarded to Fairphone which received 15, with Alcatel coming in at 9. Apple was awarded 6, and Samsung received 3.5.
As the two leading smartphone manufacturers, Apple and Samsung have both pledged to up their game and rebrand their company as ethically accountable. But how successful have they been?
Providing a Living Wage
The majority of companies with an ethical sourcing policy require the payment of a legal minimum wage to workers. However, the minimum wage in many countries does not provide enough for workers to actually support themselves and their families.
There is increasing focus on paying a Living Wage to ensure that workers can afford basic needs including housing, transport, health care, food and drink and education for their families.
Samsung claims to pay above the minimum wage, but there has been limited evidence that this is the case. Of the 39 technological companies assessed in the Baptist World Aid survey, Nokia was the only one able to prove that its workers are paid a living wage.
China Labour Watch, a New York based pressure group, published a report into work schedules for Apple workers in China which show that Apple are far from paying a minimum wage, let alone a living wage. The minimum wage in Shanghai last year was set at 2020 Yuan per month, which converts to roughly 318 USD.
However, with workers receiving around $1.50 an hour in Shanghai, Chinese workers for Apple earned around $268 per month before overtime.
Is Samsung more ethical than Apple about providing a living wage? Perhaps, as Samsung has claimed that many of their workers do receive more than the minimum wage although there was not enough evidence at the publication of the report to confirm this.
Apple has not committed to paying a living wage to all of its employees either, but there are ongoing investigations into improving salaries to its underpaid workers. Overall, Nokia is the most ethical smartphone provider in terms of providing a living wage.
China Labour Watch has done extensive research into working conditions in China for both Apple and Samsung workers. With Samsung pledging to improve worker conditions following accusations of forced overtime in 2012, is Samsung more ethical than Apple when it comes to working conditions?
Workers schedules at Apple comprise around six days a week with 11 hour shifts. Overtime was found to have increased in 2014 from the previous year. The unexpected death of Apple worker Tian Fulei in March was blamed by his family on working extreme overtime which it was said he felt he could not refuse.
However, Samsung have been described as engaging in a “race to the bottom’ with factory sweatshop conditions.’ China Labour Watch, Samsung has employed many underage workers who are forced to work up to 100 hours of overtime per month.
There has been evidence that Samsung require their workers to stand for up to 12 hours, and frequently suffer verbal and sometimes physical abuse. There have also been suggestions of serious age and gender discrimination.
One worker reported that she ‘slept about two or three hours a night’ during a three month rush prior to the release of the Samsung Galaxy tablet. She also claimed she had ‘to stop breastfeeding her three-month-old infant to keep up with schedule.’
The SumOfUs petition in 2012 pushed Apple to improving their worker safety and conditions in factories.
The petition claimed that the chemicals used in production are potentially toxic, and cite n-hexane as causing persistent nerve damage. There have also been reports of deadly explosions at iPad factories, as well as several cases of workers dying from exhaustion.
There have even been suggestions that attempted suicide has become so common at Apple-contracted factories that management has installed nets below building ledges to prevent death by jumping.
Samsung has denied reports that its semiconductor manufacturing plants could be responsible for increased levels of cancer among its workers.
SHARPS (Supporters for the Health And Rights of People in the Semiconductor Industry) is a Korea-based watchdog that has been involved in criticisms of Samsung for not taking necessary precautions to protect its workers. They reported that around 200 Samsung employees have contracted cancer, including 70 terminal cases.
However, Samsung has promised to create a fund of 85.8 million USD specifically to support Samsung workers facing cancer and their families. The scheme is also designed to improve worker safety at production factories worldwide.
Do working conditions suggest that Samsung is more ethical than Apple? Although both companies have faced multiple accusations of poor working conditions and forced overtime, both companies are attempting to regulate conditions more carefully. It has been suggested that Apple is actually making more of a difference than Samsung.
“As part of our pledge against child labour, Samsung routinely conducts inspections to monitor our suppliers to ensure they follow our commitment,” Samsung said in a statement. “We are urgently looking into the latest allegations and will take appropriate measures in accordance with our policies to prevent any cases of child labour in our suppliers.”
Samsung have long employed Chinese supplier HEG Electronics which have been found to hire children under the age of 14. After allegations in July 2014, Samsung ceased operation with the supplier, but are now back in business with them, although operating at 30% of its previous business.
Similarly, a report in 2013 found that one Chinese company in the supply chain of Apple had employed 74 children under the age of 16.
However, following audits in 2014, the 16 cases of underage labour discovered in Apple factories were dealt with, and Apple has initiated an Underage Labour Remediation Programme. Under the scheme, any supplier found hiring underage workers are immediately put on probation.
In addition, suppliers found in breach of the rules have to fully finance the worker’s education, continue to pay the worker’s wages and offer the worker a job when they reach the legal age.
The other huge area of concern in the production of smartphones and other devices is responsibly sourced materials.
Although Apple claims to be ‘dedicated to the ethical sourcing of minerals like tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, so we can improve conditions for workers at the deepest levels of our supply chain’, there is ongoing concern about the use of materials mined by small independent producers known as Artisanal and Small-scale Miners (ASM).
The ASM sector employs between 13 and 20 million people across the globe, particularly in developing countries, and is extremely open to labour abuses. Forced by low incomes to borrow money, many ASM miners borrow from local loan sharks who oversee mining operations and take a cut of their wages. This can easily result in ASM miners being caught in a form of modern slavery.
The use of gold is particularly worrying, as gold mining frequently exposes workers to arsenic and mercury which are extremely dangerous and can be fatal. In the gold mines of Mali, nearly 40,000 children mined gold during 2011.
Samsung has similarly claimed to ‘identify and eliminate the use of conflict minerals, including tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, in all of our products even though we are not obligated by the S.E.C. enforcement ordinance.’
However, as with Apple, neither company can tell if they source minerals such as gold from Ghana or Mali.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children work in unstable mines to extract minerals used by technological giants. Not only is this profession extremely dangerous for the workers who are frequently underage and mistreated, but the profits from the minerals have been used to finance conflict in the Congo which has lasted nearly 20 years.
Both Samsung and Apple have been unable to guarantee that they will not be using materials mined in Congo. So in summary, is Samsung more ethical than Apple in terms of responsibly sourced materials used in its devices? Sadly, it seems that neither technological giant is winning any ethical prizes here.