Apple takes a stand on iPhone factory worker rights

By Jonny Evans

With the iPad 3 already in production and iPhone 5 assembly lines in development, you wouldn't believe it if you looked at the headlines, but Apple [AAPL] has taken another big step toward improving working conditions in factories across its supply chain. And now's the time to demand other firms in the consumer electronics industry also do the right thing, if you really want to change the way things are.

Be the change

In a Monday press release, Apple announced that the Washington-based Fair Labor Association (FLA) has been called in to conduct special voluntary audits of Apple's final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China.

Apple can argue that it is leading the industry in the move to police and ensure decent working conditions. In January, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the FLA. The organization began in 1999 in an initiative begun my former US President, Bill Clinton. Other firms on the books include Nike and Nestle.

The first inspections began yesterday morning at the facility in Shenzhen known as Foxconn City, with a team led by FLA president Auret van Heerden. That workers want things to get better is obvious, after all, 150 Foxconn employees threatened to leap from a three-story building last month in protest at poor pay and highly-pressured working conditions.

Will this be real change, or rhetoric?

Apple CEO Tim Cook stressed his company's growing commitment to worker rights, saying: "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."

That's not all, Cook also claimed the inspections to be "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."

The move follows several weeks of stinging criticism at conditions Apple voluntarily confirmed within its recently-published Apple Supplier Responsibility Report.

This has generated weeks of damaging headlines as reports focus on the conditions Apple has revealed, while failing to pay enough attention to the fact that conditions like this are endemic across the entire consumer electronics industry, and that other big brand manufacturers are failing to deliver even Apple's level of commitment to improving working conditions.

Is this real?

The rigorous examination will see FLA interview thousands of employees about working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management. Inspectors will examine manufacturing areas, dormitories and other facilities, and will conduct an extensive review of documents related to procedures at all stages of employment.

These checks will likely be welcomed by Foxconn. That company has seen a rash of suicides across its factories in recent years, and will be eager to prevent this while being seen to take a step toward improved working conditions. That need to change the focus away from what's bad and toward what is better could be behind the checks, which some cynics may still regard as a whitewash, under these circumstances. Though it is action at least.

There will be further checks across Apple's supply chain. Apple's suppliers have pledged full cooperation with the FLA, offering unrestricted access to their operations.

Apple's recent report confirmed the CE value chain to be full of examples of failing rights for workers. The report admitted to cases of the following -- but it is clear these conditions are common across the industry.

  •         Involuntary labor
  •         Underage labor
  •         Lack of protective gear
  •         Poor emergency planning
  •         Long hours
  •         Explosions

Change is up to you

I'd argue that if one truly cares about improving these conditions then it is vitally important pressure be bought to bear on everyone else within the industry. If such pressure is not bought, then Apple's moves will achieve little, but if consumers and electronics companies force change elsewhere, then this could become a seminal moment at which working rights are improved on an international basis.

The FLA's findings and recommendations from the first assessments will be posted in early March on its website. Similar inspections will be conducted at Quanta and Pegatron facilities later this spring, and when completed, the FLA's assessment will cover facilities where more than 90 percent of Apple products are assembled.

Apple has audited every final assembly factory in its supply chain each year since 2006, including more than 40 audits of Foxconn manufacturing and final assembly facilities.

[ABOVE: Speaking on Foxconn, Apple's Steve Jobs seemed positive -- but perhaps he didn't 'get' everything right.]

Is the FLA enough?

Not everyone is convinced of the sincerity of these actions: "The reason why Apple is having this FLA inspection is not because they want to solve the problems; instead, it's because Apple wants to get publicity and rebuild its positive image," Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch said in a statement. "What Apple should do now is to take action to solve the problems and improve the labor conditions in their supplier factories."

"FLA is part of a corporate social responsibility industry that's totally compromised," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, accusing the organization of weak auditing, she stressed that real change would need true empowering of the work force.

There are some who feel Apple should extend the number of human rights and labor organizations it recognizes in order to ensure even more accuracy within its invigilation of working partners.

With the human rights of workers across the world depend not just on Apple's actions, but on those of other big name firms. It really is time to demand Microsoft, Samsung, Motorola, Dell, HP and others vigorously follow Apple's lead and begin work to end inhumane working practices. Many of these firms have products which are made by suppliers from within the Apple ecosystem, after all.

It isn't just about Apple and the other big firms. Change like this also depends on you. Beyond the headlines and the rhetoric, please ask yourself, in an increasingly globalized economy, your decisions here affect others elsewhere, so:

Will you, as a consumer, be willing to pay more for your products in order to finance better working conditions for the people who make them? Or do you believe rhetoric is all it takes to change the world?

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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