Following claims that it isn’t doing enough to end worker mistreatment in Chinese factories, Apple has publicly asked the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to “conduct special voluntary audits of Apple’s final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China.”
The FLA acknowledged Apple’s request almost immediately and began its first inspections at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen this morning. Apple will be hoping that the FLA’s report puts the allegations that it is not doing all it can to bed and proves that working conditions are improving thanks to the company’s work.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in the company’s press release:
We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers. The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.
As part of the FLA’s assessment it will conduct interviews with thousands of Foxconn employees to establish their working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours, and communication with management. It will also inspect manufacturing facilities and dormitories, and will review documents related to Foxconn procedures at all stages of employment.
The FLA’s final report will be published on its website in March, with similar audits scheduled to take place at Quanta and Pegatron this Spring.
Apple’s announcement proves the company is committed to improving the situation in Chinese factories. But some are skeptical that the FLA will see the real “horrors” within Foxconn.
John Biggs over at TechCrunch believes that the FLA will be introduced to all of Foxconn’s pleasant attributes — such as the “handsome cybercafe with couples’ booths, and pools where exhausted line workers can enjoy a few laps before slumping into their loft beds” — but that it won’t see the full picture:
What they won’t see are disfigured workers toiling in Dickensian sweatshops, infants crawling through metal stamping machines, and workers chained to their stations until the millionth widget is shipped or they die of exhaustion. Why? Because Foxconn has been working with major manufacturers for long enough to know what they expect and they’ve seen enough European and American plants to know that squalid conditions beget squalid paychecks.
The FLA, without a doubt, will return with a report citing a few underage workers, the recommendation to build bigger dorms, and an overall rating of, say B- in terms of safety and worker quality-of-life. It’s not perfect, they’ll say, but it’s not horrible, especially when compared to garment shops.
What will happen next? Apple will announce an all clear, the FLA will be less likely to attack Apple on rights violations, and Foxconn (and, more importantly, its competitors) will go back to business as usual. And we’ll forget about this whole thing, our fingers worrying our Foxconn-made iPhones like a set of prayer beads.
Then, quietly, the factories that are really running under horrible conditions, hiring workers without checking the particulars, and offering conditions that I wouldn’t wish on any man, woman, or child, will go back to churning out smoke, albeit with a bit more secrecy. By focusing on the biggest Chinese (actually Taiwanese) manufacturer, we inspect the canopy of the tree while ignoring the disease-infested trunk.
So is Apple’s latest move with the FLA a step in the right direction, or is it missing the bigger picture and simply an attempt and keeping the bad press too a minimum?