Computer giant Apple Inc, now the world's most valuable company, announced Monday that is has tasked the Fair Labor Association to conduct special voluntary audits of Apple's final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China, at Apple's request. The audit comes in response to a growing outcry from human rights and labor activists who have protested conditions at Foxconn. Instrumental in the United States was a campaign was a Change.org campaign started by confessed Apple-lover Mark Shields after he learned of the deplorable conditions under which many Apple suppliers working in.
A team of labor rights experts led by FLA president Auret van Heerden began the first inspections Monday morning at the facility in Shenzhen known as Foxconn City.
"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," said Tim Cook, Apple's CEO. "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 an Apple consumer, I'm relieved to hear that Tim Cook is taking this seriously and is breaking ground in the industry with Fair Labor Association auditing," Shields said in a statement. "But Apple still needs to use some of their trademark creativity and problem solving to create a worker protection plan for new products -- especially the upcoming iPad 3 -- so that they're proactively taking care of their workers."
The Toronto Sunreports today:
In the past, Foxconn, a mammoth electronics manufacturing company that has a million employees around the world, has come under scrutiny because of accidents as well as worker unrest. That includes employee suicides that made headlines in 2010.
Last month, as many as 150 Foxconn workers reportedly vowed they would jump from the roof of their plant in Wuhan, complaining of labor conditions, training and pay.
On Monday morning, FLA officials were allowed into a sprawling facility in Shenzhen, known as Foxconn City. Last year, company officials reportedly put in suicide nets at the workers' living quarters, as well as raising pay and shortening shifts.
And though the news was viewed as a step in the right direction by all, some were more cautious in their praise of the move, especially the role that the FLA has played in previous "audits".
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs.org, told Wired in the UK, "We're hopeful that this is a step towards the solution, but it's not even close to the solution itself. The FLA does not have a great track record of conducting effective investigations." According to Wired:
... those looking for Apple (as well as other tech companies) to really change their ways, the FLA may not be the best company to perform these assessments, if its history is anything to go by.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman pointed out a site called FLA Watch that's dedicated to monitoring the company's well-publicized audits. It calls the FLA "a public relations mouthpiece" for corporations (particularly the apparel industry).
"The FLA was created in response to student protests around the sweatshop issue in the late 90s, specifically to monitor garment shops, with Nike as a founding member," Teresa Cheng, international campaigns coordinator with United Students Against Sweatshops (the organization behind FLA Watch), told Wired. "Ten years later, we see little to no reform of sweatshop conditions in Nike's supply chain, and no positive changes can be attributed to the FLA."
Another veteran of the garment industry backs up Cheng's opinion of audits.
"Reading that Apple has been auditing their vendors since 2006 does not mean anything," says Sindy Sagastume, production manager for a fashion company called Aimee Lynn, which imports clothing for distribution to US-based companies like Walmart, Target, and Sears. "Audits are truly a tool used by retailers in the US to make themselves seem to be socially compliant, but in fact does nothing to ensure factories are acting appropriately," Sagastume told Wired.
So how much teeth does the FLA really have behind its audits? The organization has developed a code of conduct with which it judges workplace conditions, but all it does is investigate and report on working conditions; it doesn't actually instigate any change itself. According to the organization's website: "The FLA is a brand accountability system that places the onus on companies to voluntarily achieve the FLA's labor standards in the factories manufacturing their products."
In other words: The FLA is a reporting agency, not a policing agency. Any real change for Foxconn workers will come from either Foxconn itself, pressure from the Chinese government, or Apple.
"This is at best a decent first step," echoed Stinebrickner-Kauffman of SumOfUs.org. "At worst, the beginning of a white-washing campaign."
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