The Free Labor Association just began a detailed audit of Foxconn's Apple production facilities this week, but the organization's head has already angered critics by issuing a positive statement about work conditions before his group's investigation is complete. In an interview with Reuters published Wednesday, FLA President Aurent van Heerden said that the factory floor seemed "tranquil," called physical conditions "way, way above the average of the norm," and blamed "boredom" for many of workers' problems, including a rash of suicides.
"The problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory," he told Reuters, speaking about the level of worker stress that led to at least 17 suicides in the past two years. "It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."
Teresa Cheng, international campaigns coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, was offended both by van Heerden's explanation for the suicides and his decision to compliment the facilities so early in the review process. Her group created a website called FLA Watch, which is critical of the association's ties to the companies it polices.
"Mr. van Heerden's comments are outrageous and shocking, even to those of us who have been monitoring the FLA's irresponsible reporting for years," she said. "Attributing the suicides of sweatshop workers who make iPhones to mere boredom is insulting and the FLA's most creative argument to date for defending its corporate funders."
Earlier this week, when Apple announced it had invited the FLA to inspect its suppliers' production lines, it failed to impress Apple critics like Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman of labor group SumOfUs.org and Li Qiang of China Labor Watch who both questioned the association's objectivity in separate interviews with us Monday. "Most of the time, FLA speaks on behalf of the companies, not the workers," Li told us.
Despite its detractors, the Fair Labor Association maintains that it's both objective and empowered to force real changes in factory conditions. Speaking to Wired Magazine, van Heerden stated that his organization finds and corrects an average of 13 code violations per audit. By publishing the violations, he claims the association is showing its independence. "Our results speak for themselves," he said.
The FLA also shared key details of its audit process with Reuters. Over the course of three weeks, 30 FLA representatives will visit two Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China and one in Chengdu. The inspectors plan to interview 35,000 workers in groups of 30 at a time, asking them to fill out surveys on Apple iPads.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who told us previously that the FLA's in-factory interviews discourage workers from revealing the worst abuses, remains unimpressed.
"It's now clear that as far as Apple and the FLA are concerned, this so-called investigation has a foregone conclusion," she said. "We already suspected that, but it's impressively stupid of Mr. van Heerden not to be able to restrain himself from announcing that conclusion at least until the end of the charade."