Updated Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 08:50 AM
Overseas suppliers manufacture thousands of Amazon.com products ranging from Kindles to pillows to lawn chairs. All the suppliers are supposed to comply with an Amazon code of standards that includes a ban on child labor and forced labor.
But in an era when worker- and human-rights activists are pressing for increased disclosure, Amazon remains mum about which international suppliers make these products and about the results of watchdog audits.
"They (Amazon) are not transparent about what they are doing and, most important, about what the outcomes of the audits are. They are essentially saying, 'Trust us,' " said Meg Roggensack of Human Rights First.
Amazon's public reporting on suppliers lags behind that of some other major U.S. corporations.
Apple earlier this year published a list of major suppliers along with a report on its auditing program. Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart have published summaries of audit results on global suppliers. Microsoft, in its 2012 corporate-citizenship report, acknowledges finding two instances of the use of underage labor by suppliers, who were not awarded new business until the problems were resolved.
On its website, Amazon reports that the company in 2011 contracted for audits of 159 factories in 13 countries. When The Seattle Times asked for additional information, Amazon cited an expanded 2012 effort that encompassed 315 audits in 19 countries."We track remediation closely and conduct follow-ups," the company said a statement released to The Times.
Amazon officials said the company works with Bureau Veritas, a global firm that offers inspection, audit and certification services, and Amazon managers participate in many audits. But they declined to disclose any of the audit results, which are based on a score card of 216 items. Worker advocates note there are plenty of problems with company-financed audits, which sometimes are done by contractors who don't spot health and safety issues and fail to pick up on problems of workers who may be unable to speak openly. A Bangladesh garment factory, for example, that had been subject to audits was the scene of a November fire that killed 112 workers.
Disclosing the results of the audits is an important step in allowing outside scrutiny, advocates say. "I am glad they are doing the audits. But what you really want to know is what they are finding and what they are doing to solve the problems," said Dan Viederman, executive director of Verite (not related to Veritas), an organization that trains and certifies supplier auditors.
Labor concerns in U.S.
Amazon's most publicized labor issues have flared in the United States, where it employs tens of thousands of workers in fulfillment-center warehouses.
In 2011, the Allentown Morning Call published articles about Amazon workers who succumbed to heat exhaustion while working in a warehouse without air conditioning. Earlier this year, The Seattle Times reported on harsh conditions at a Campbellsville, Ky., warehouse, where employees who complained about the workplace feared losing their jobs and a former human-resources employee said managers strategized on how to shed injured workers.
With the past half-decade, Amazon also has rapidly expanded a network of overseas suppliers to manufacture products such as Kindle e-readers, as well as lines of furnishings, electronics and other private-label merchandise.
For U.S. corporations that head overseas, Nike's experience in the 1990s offers a stark example of the public-relations perils of investing in a global supply chain. The Oregon-based shoe and sportswear corporation came under attack for sweatshop conditions in Asia, where reports of children earning as little as 6 cents an hour and other labor problems generated a surge of protests.
In an effort to turn around the tide of bad publicity, Nike in 1999 helped form the Fair Labor Association to conduct independent investigations of suppliers and push for greater disclosures from its corporate members. Nike now offers extensive disclosures on suppliers and audit results.
More recently, the electronics industry has come under attack for conditions facing Chinese workers who manufacture mobile phones, laptops and other devices.
Industry turning point?
In 2010, the suicides of 10 workers at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, prompted Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Nokia and Nintendo, all of whom had products produced at that factory, to announce investigations of Foxconn's operations.
Since then, China Labor Watch, which advocates for improved working conditions, has reported widespread violations of Chinese labor law, including forced overtime, at Foxconn.
Earlier this year, The New York Times published a lengthy examination of Foxconn's treatment of workers producing iPhones.
Foxconn also does contract work for Amazon, according to Ken Hui, a Hong Kong-based analyst for Jefferies, a banking and investment firm. Hui, who says his information is based on supply-industry sources, says Foxconn produces Kindle e-readers and one model of the Kindle Fires. He notes that Amazon is a relatively small client of Foxconn compared with Apple.
Amazon has declined to comment on whether Foxconn is one of its suppliers. China Labor Watch investigators examining Foxconn and other major Chinese manufacturers have yet to come across workers producing Amazon products, according to Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch.
As Apple executives grappled with questions about its labor practices in China, the corporation has stepped up disclosures.
In January, for the first time, Apple published a list of more than 150 suppliers and also expanded its reporting of audit results, although it's still not naming the suppliers subject to the audits.
Apple also this year became the first electronics corporation to join the Fair Labor Association, the organization that Nike helped found.
The Fair Labor Association then conducted its own investigation of the Foxconn plants in China that produce iPhones, documenting pay problems and health and safety risks, and coming up with a list of recommendations to improve work conditions.
Foxconn, in a statement to The Seattle Times, said that key findings of the audits are being adapted companywide and will impact all of its workers in China.
Many other suppliers in China have been cited for abusive working conditions.
In 2010, the Pittsburg-based National Labor Committee released a report alleging that KYE, a factory in Dongguan, China, recruited hundreds of 16- and 17-year-olds who worked up to 15-hour shifts six and seven days a week to produce Microsoft products. Up to 14 workers would share primitive dorm rooms, and some security guards sexually harassed young women, according to the report.
Microsoft officials confirmed the corporation contracted with the KYE factory and said they would "take appropriate steps to ensure fair treatment" of the workers.
Microsoft, however, has not followed Apple's lead in releasing a list of suppliers subject to corporate audits.
"Our list of suppliers is considered confidential business information," the company said in a statement released to The Times.
Microsoft officials say the company has invested heavily in a supply-chain accountability program and continues to look at ways to improve working conditions.
One possibility, for example, would be to invest in educational opportunities for young contract workers. Microsoft expects to disclose more information about these initiatives in the new year, according to company officials.
Microsoft also is a co-founder of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, which now has more than 70 members. The coalition seeks to improve social, ethical and environmental responsibility in the global supply-chain business, and it has worked to create a standardized auditing process.
Amazon has yet to join the industry coalition. It also has been absent from many of the conferences that have brought corporations and activists together to address labor concerns.
"I have been working on these issues for more than 15 years and have interacted with Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart on these issues. But I have never seen an Amazon representative at any of these events," said Dara O'Rourke, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who studies global supply chains.
But that could change. Amazon, in its statement, said the company is studying the industrywide efforts and considering membership in the electronic coalition.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com
THOMAS LEE / BLOOMBERG
Chinese workers sit at a production line in a technology park known as Foxconn City. Foxconn, a supplier investigated for labor abuses, reportedly is a maker of some Kindle devices, but Amazon isn't saying.