Apple's Foxconn enters damage control over iPhone factory fracas

By Jonny Evans

An unconfirmed report claims Apple [AAPL] manufacturing partner, Foxconn, has hired heavyweight PR agency Burson-Marsteller to clean up its public image, following months of terrible tales slamming working conditions inside the iPhone factories.

Disaster management

Burson-Marsteller is highly experienced in dealing with big PR disasters. It handled the media following the Bhopal and Three Mile island disasters and also represented the Blackwater military group.

"Burson-Marsteller looked after the image of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and Saudi Arabia after it was pointed out that most of the September 11 attackers were from that country," reports TechEye.

Foxconn has been beset by problems. Last year saw a rash of suicides across its factories as young and overworked employees finally reached the edge of self-control.

Previous reports have described long working hours, deep boredom, unavoidable overtime and autocratic management across Foxconn plant. The company has reportedly been working hard to fix some of these problems, but many critics still think more needs to be done.

Benefit of doubt

Burson-Marsteller's 2012 Global Corporate Reputation Index had this to say of tech firms: "Of all the industries, technology companies have the strongest average reputation," reads the report. "However, the bulk of their reputation stems from attributes like "innovative" and "visionary", suggesting a performance glow is driving the image of the industry. As a result, many technology companies are given the benefit of the doubt in terms of their citizenship efforts...."

While it's fair to say it isn't just Apple, or Foxconn, who suffer from the big public perception divide between expectations of working conditions in the Western world and the reality of working life in the emerging economies, it's still Apple and Foxconn who are carrying the can.

Partially, of course, because they're among the very few technology firms who can really claim to be doing particularly well in the current economic climate.

Apple's attempt to see off criticism of working conditions has so far included factory inspections, TV show investigations, a commitment to improving working conditions across its manufacturing partners and a highly revealing public report exploring conditions across the supply chain.

Myth or reality?

Whether the reality of working practices in the iPhone factories is as bad as the published reports and opinion pieces explaining the situation is almost irrelevant at this point.

Suicide rates among Foxconn employees are markedly lower than those across the Chinese population, but even one lost life is one life too many. Meanwhile mud continues to be thrown at the iPhone factory wall, with some reporting Foxconn has hidden child workers from Apple's factory inspectors.

True or false, the allegations continue to generate big problems for the Chinese firm. That Foxconn has (according only to TechEye) hired in this level of PR help suggests the controversy over worker rights in the iPhone factories is set to continue.

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