Keeping an eye on working conditions across Apple's vast supply chain is no easy task

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Keeping an eye on working conditions across Apple's vast supply chain is no easy task

Bloomberg Businessweek yesterday posted a gripping tale detailing the inherent challenges faced by Apple as it tries to promote fair working conditions across its supply chain.

The Bloomberg piece zeroes in on life at Flextronics in the weeks preceding Apple's iPhone 5 launch. Based out of Singapore, Flextronics was tasked with manufacturing the iPhone 5's camera before shipping them off to China. With factories spread out across the globe, it used its factory space in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to handle iPhone 5 camera production.

What follows is a fascinating tale detailing how Flextronics tapped into an extensive network of recruiters to amass a workforce large enough to handle Apple's massive product orders. Massive is a bit of an understatement as Apple ended up selling the iPhone at a rate of 3.7 million units a week for several months after the launch.

Some of the workers hired to meet these product demands came from as far away as Nepal. And that's where the story really begins.

What ensued, according to Taparia and the others, was a frenzy. Even the Nepalese government official in charge of approving foreign-worker permits, Surya Bhandari, says he was deluged with calls from Malaysia and Nepal urging him to issue permits faster and to waive a mandated seven-day waiting period. "They pressured me," recalls Bhandari, now retired. They also told him the men were needed to work on iPhones and that sending men to work for Apple would be good for Nepal. The hunt reached then-27-year-old Bibek Dhong on his mobile phone, while he was packing milk crates at a Kathmandu dairy to support his wife, a newborn daughter, and his extended family. The call would change his life.

The article recounts how workers like Dhong are often put into positions where they feel forced, or perhaps strongly compelled, to take out loans for commission payments to a hierarchy of recruiters, who provide access to these coveted manufacturing jobs. What's worse, some employees aren't always able to go back to their home countries on account of intra-country politics and bureaucracies.

That's just the briefest of recaps -- the entire article is well worth checking out as it helps color the massive manufacturing machine that is Apple. The article is by no means a referendum against Apple. Indeed, Apple has taken more action than most other tech companies to ensure worker abuse is curtailed as much as possible.

Still, the article highlights the daunting challenges involved when overseeing a complex supply chain that spans continents and encompasses thousands of workers.

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