Apple Sends Fair Labor Cops to Knock on Foxconn's Door
Apple has asked the Fair Labor Association to conduct independent audits of Foxconn facilities and other mega-factories in China that produce Apple goods. The move follows a renewed round of public attention focusing on the working conditions of those who build Apple products. Apple says it cares about workers at all points in its supply chain, but critics say these new inspections are a whitewash.
02/13/12 2:55 PM PT
Apple on Monday announced that the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an industry group it joined a month ago, would conduct "special voluntary audits" of its final assembly suppliers.
These include Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China.
Labor rights experts led by FLA president Auret van Heerden commenced the audit Monday at the Shenzhen facility called "Foxconn City," Apple stated.
Not So Fast
However, SumOfUS, a global movement of consumers, investors and workers who seek to hold corporations accountable for their actions, dismissed the inspections as a whitewash.
FLA is a business-funded group with a track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece, the organization said.
"If [Apple] wanted its code of conduct to mean anything, it could allow independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) ... to conduct independent investigations of the factories," Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs, told MacNewsWorld.
Apple and the FLA did not respond to our requests for further details.
The FLA Fandango
The FLA team will interview thousands of employees about their working and living conditions, health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management, Apple said.
It will inspect manufacturing areas, dormitories and other facilities. The team will also conduct an extensive review of documents related to procedures at all stages of employment.
When inspections at the facilities of Foxconn, Quanta and Pegatron are completed, the FLA's assessment will cover facilities where more than 90 percent of Apple products are assembled, Cupertino claimed.
Apple's suppliers have pledged full cooperation with the FLA. Findings and recommendations from the first assessments will be posted on FLA's website in early March.
Apple pointed out that it is the first technology company admitted to the FLA, and that it has audited every final assembly factory in its supply chain annually since 2006.
Details of Apple's supplier responsibility program, including the results of the more than 500 factory audits it has led over the past five years, are available here.
Vox Populi, Vox Dei
It's possible that the FLA's inspections were triggered by pressure from Cupertino in the wake of mounting public anger at reports of horrendous working conditions there.
That report drew an angry retort from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who contended that the company cares about its workers. However, "It's clear that Apple's running scared here," SumOfUs' Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. "They wouldn't be doing press releases about FLA if they weren't worried."
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
The audits led by Apple include more than 40 inspections of Foxconn's manufacturing and final assembly facilities, Apple stated.
Nonetheless, a series of publicly reported worker suicides put a great deal of attention on the factories and even motivated management to go so far as to install nets to prevent people from jumping off the roofs of buildings. They also reportedly pressured workers to sign an agreement not to commit suicide.
In May, an explosion at Foxconn's Chengdu plant killed three people and injured 15.
"The way the deck is stacked, virtually everyone is motivated not to find problems," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld.
"Because of the media attention, however, if this group doesn't find something, it will have trouble justifying the effort," Enderle continued. "I expect them to find some token issues, and it's likely that Apple's set for this outcome as well."
The root cause of these problems is Apple, not its suppliers, contended Stinebrickner-Kauffman from SumOfUs.
"Apple doesn't allow its suppliers to have wide enough profit margins, so they cut corners. And it doesn't put mechanisms in place to enforce its code of conduct," Stinebrickner-Kauffman explained.
Apple "could put in place actual compensation mechanisms for workers when suppliers don't follow its code of conduct, and it should make factories train workers on what the code of conduct is," Stinebrickner-Kauffman suggested.
However, it's likely that Foxconn will cut services in plants not being audited to cover the costs of implementing better labor conditions, so the workers will bear the penalties in the end, Enderle opined.
"The system isn't really designed to help workers yet, and the focus on profits makes a penalty-based punishment system disadvantageous to worker health and safety," Enderle pointed out.
On the other hand, suppliers "have to continue to compete on costs, so they, too are between a rock and a hard place," Enderle said.