Under increased public scrutiny for its suppliers' sometimes-harsh working conditions, Apple announced that it has invited third-party inspectors from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct a massive audit beginning this week. Yet despite this unprecedented step, labor advocates worry that the inspections will only improve Apple's image, not alleviate harsh working conditions.
"This is, at best, a decent first step and, at worst, the beginning of a white washing operation," said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of the activist group SumOfUs, which delivered a 250,000-signature petition to Apple just last week.
In a press release, Apple said that the FLA will inspect work areas, dormitories, and other facilities at 90 percent of its Chinese suppliers' factories, beginning with Foxconn's plants in Shenzhen and Chengdu, the latter of which was the site of a fatal explosion last year. The association also plans to interview thousands of employees about their experiences, before it begins posting the results of its reports on the fairlabor.org website in early March.
No stranger to inspections, Apple has conducted over 500 of its own supplier audits since 2006. Unlike Dell, HP and most other competitors the company issues a full report on its findings each year, including a detailed list of violations and the actions it took to correct them.
Fair Labor Association: Workers' Advocate or Industry Mouthpiece?
Despite Apple's transparency in its own reports, labor activists take issue with both the objectivity of the FLA inspectors and the broader notion that third-party factory inspections alone can fix conditions that range from forced labor to unsafe conditions, underage labor, abusive supervisors and 12-hour shifts without bathroom breaks. According to both Stinebrickner-Kauffman and China Labor Watch Founder Li Qiang, the FLA is too close to its corporate members to truly protect the workers.
"The position FLA is taking now is at the company's perspective, not the worker's. Most of the time, FLA speaks on behalf of the companies, not the workers," Li said.
Li advised Apple to talk with groups that represent the workers, rather than just sending inspectors to visit the factories. In a previous interview, he voiced concerns about the integrity of the inspection agencies FLA employs to conduct its audits. He told us that the association sometimes uses Intertek, a company whose inspectors China Labor Watch claims to have caught taking bribes, to do inspections, though there's no evidence Intertek is involved in the Apple audits. We reached out to the FLA to ask who is conducting its Apple inspections, but didn't hear back in time for this article.
Though Apple touted the FLA's intention to interview workers, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that the association doesn't always protect their anonymity, conducting the interviews right at the factory where supervisors can see who is saying what. "Inspections can help [resolve workers' problems], but the question is whether FLA inspections can help," she said. "They have in the past done a better job of white-washing labor abuses than they have of ending them."
Do Inspections Help?
Having the FLA visit factories and catalog abuses could be a step forward for transparency, but can inspections really help improve working conditions? Apple clearly thinks so, as the company proudly lists the ways it resolved each conduct violation it found in its annual report. For example, in 2011, the company says it found 58 facilities where workers were not using appropriate personal protective equipment and required them to train their workers to use protective gear and hold managers responsible for its use. Apple doesn't go so far as to say which 58 facilities they were and whether they have been reinspected since, but the FLA audits are designed to double-check all of the supplier's progress.
The activists we spoke to don't agree that more audits are the answer. Li even posited that such inspections are designed to shift responsibility onto suppliers like Foxconn and away from a world-renowned brand.
"What Apple should do now is to take action to solve the problems and improve the labor conditions in their supplier factories, not to conduct inspections and put the factories into the media and public's attention," Li said. "It is Apple, not the factories who should take the main responsibility."
While suppliers run the factories and employ the workers, critics feel that Apple's continued efforts to lower costs and increase production encourage the suppliers to cut corners when it comes to worker safety and human rights. They also believe Apple can set an example for other vendors, because it is the most successful beneficiary of low-cost Chinese labor. However, to do so, they say the Cupertino company will have to pony up a bit more cash.
"It's hard to imagine FLA will come back and say that 'what you really need to do is pay this company lot more money.'" Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. "That is really at the crux of a lot of these issues and Apple has to address that. It's just gonna have to pay a little bit more to its suppliers to make sure that they have the margins to be able to create safe working conditions."