Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Did yet another Apple Inc. contractor really just get caught using underage labor in one of its Chinese factories?

According to China Labor Watch, a nongovernmental organization based in New York, the answer is an unambiguous "yes." On July 29, the organization issued a report accusing Pegatron, a major Apple contractor in China, of employing more than 10,000 underage workers from 16 to 20 years of age, and requiring them to "work in crowded production rooms, doing the same work as formal, adult workers," among other allegations.

It's an accusation perfectly tuned to outrage an American public accustomed to being shocked at Apple’s labor practices (all the while buying new iterations of the iPhone in ever-greater numbers). And it would be outrageous except for one pesky fact: 16 is the age at which Chinese are legally allowed to work. The right is nearly unrestricted, too, unless between the age of 16 and 18 a Chinese decides to work in a coal mine or other hazardous settings where poisons may be present. In those cases, an employer is required to make special safety provisions.

Few labor activists, even those critical of Apple’s past behavior, would compare the company's factories to Chinese coal mines (in 2012, there were about 1,300 reported coal-mining deaths in China). China Labor Watch, however, shows no such restraint. Take, for example, the passage under the section "Child labor and underage employees":

"There are underage employees. Workers under the age of 18 do the same amount of work as adult workers and receive no special protection. A 17-year-old employee working on the same assembly line as the investigator had the same working schedule as other operators on the assembly line, which is 10.5 hours per day. After work, he usually has a late night meal at a night market, catches the company shuttle back to his dorm, takes a shower, does his laundry, and then lies in bed, surfing on the Internet with his cellphone. This is clearly in violation of Chinese regulations that require special protection for underage workers."

Neither in this section, nor anywhere else in the report is any evidence that workers under the age of 16 are employed at Pegatron. As for the anonymous 17-year-old described in the report, no doubt spending one’s evening surfing the Internet isn’t the most edifying life, but it hardly qualifies as a human-rights abuse.

In the 48 hours since the China Labor Watch report was issued, its allegations of "underage labor" have been repeated without criticism. The Washington Post’s Hayley Tsukayama wrote on July 30: "The report alleges several violations at Pegatron facilities, including hazardous work environments, cases of underage labor and insufficient wage compensation." Likewise, Computerworld’s Jonny Evans wrote: "China Labor Watch claims to have identified at least 86 labor rights violations in Pegatron's factories, these include 36 legal violations and 50 ethical violations, not least the use of underage labor."

The intricacies of Chinese labor law make it all the more important that China Labor Watch provides credible information. In not making the laws clear, the organization not only undermines the more credible allegations in its report, but damages the credibility of labor-rights organizations committed to a truthful accounting of China's factory conditions.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg's World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)