Apple’s Foxconn Auditing Group ‘Surrounded With Controversy,’ Critics Say
February 13, 2012
Following ongoing public outcry and organized protests at Apple stores last week, Apple has announced that an organization called the Fair Labor Association is conducting independent assessments of worker conditions inside the factories of Foxconn, its manufacturing partner in China.
The FLA audit began this morning in Shenzen’s “Foxconn City.” In the inspections, FLA representatives will interview thousands of factory employees about their living and working conditions, delving into topics such as compensation, health and safety, working hours, and the workers’ communication with management. The results of the inspections will be posted on the FLA’s website in early March.
“We were hoping for a quick response, but I don’t know if we were actually expecting such a fast response from Apple,” said Sarah Ryan, a human rights organizer at Change.org, one of two groups that orchestrated last week’s protests at Apple stores. “It’s especially exciting that these audits are going to be transparent and public.”
The FLA said the audits will be conducted by “a team of labor experts” composed of FLA staff and representatives from two accredited service providers, Openview and INFACT. They’ll be visiting another Foxconn facility in Chengdu, China in the coming weeks.
While encouraged by today’s Apple announcement, Ryan also conceded the FLA is “surrounded with controversy in terms of effectiveness and objectiveness.” Still, Ryan says Change.org recognizes Apple has an existing relationship with the FLA, and as long as its findings are open and transparent, that’s a good thing.
But another key advocate of the Foxconn workers was even less impressed with Apple’s Monday announcement. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs.org, told Wired, “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.”
SumOfUs and Change.org co-sponsored a petition asking Apple to respond to allegations of Foxconn worker abuse, and to commit to developing “ethical” products. More than 250,000 people signed the petition, which was hand-delivered to Apple Stores across the globe on Thursday morning. A second petition, from Hong Kong group SACOM, takes last week’s protest one step further by outlining five specific areas in which Apple needs to improve, including ending the use of student workers and providing a living wage for factory employees.
Although knowledge of poor working conditions inside Foxconn has existed for years, after Apple’s record earnings in 2011, the issue struck a big nerve with much of the public. A New York Times piece that highlighted some of the dire conditions inside Apple’s Chinese factories motivated people to start taking action against the status quo.
The new FLA investigations, detailed in an Apple press release, appear to be a direct response to this outcry. Apple has conducted more than 40 supply chain audits of Foxconn since 2006 and over 500 audits of its factories total.
“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,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said in the release.
“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,” said Mark Shields, the consumer who originally launched the Change.org petition, 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.”
But for 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 c'ompany called Aimee Lynn, which imports clothing for distribution to 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, or 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.”
When asked to comment on its Foxconn investigations, the FLA supplied Wired with an official statement that mirrors the language of Apple’s press release. We will continue to reach out to the FLA for comment.