18 February 2015, Bloomberg View

Human rights observers applauded last week when Apple announced its most ambitious effort yet to stamp out labor abuses among its Asian suppliers. Recruitment agencies in Asia are no longer allowed to charge fees to factory workers who make Apple products, and Apple vowed to scrutinize its supply chain to ensure that its new rule is enforced.

All of this revolves around a practice that tech and electronics companies gently call “bonded servitude.” Others call it “forced labor.” Still others, like the State Department, call it for what, basically, it is: slavery.

Apple, like many of its counterparts — and many companies that make just about anything in Asia — have long relied on slave labor in Asia to make their products.

Workers in developing countries are usually forced to pay huge fees to recruiters to get jobs. Once workers take a job, the debt they incurred to pay recruiters essentially leaves them enslaved — as the State Department notes in its latest human trafficking report.

Onerous recruitment fees are common wherever migrant workers are used. Factory managers often control workers by withholding their passports, which can lead to more abuse, as this Bloomberg Businessweek story from 2013 about Apple’s supply chain graphically illustrates.



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