FLA Publishes Apple-Foxconn Investigation Results, Labor Violations Abound

Posted by · March 29, 2012 4:07 pm

Apple Inc.Two weeks ago, at the peak of the great Mike Daisey hullaballoo, I felt it appropriate to attempt to restore the focal point of the Apple labor discussion to its appropriate place. More than anything, I sought to underscore the reality that existed regardless of the validity of a monologue that somehow made its way past the usually critical eye of Ira Glass and onto one of the most listened-to episodes that This American Life has ever aired.

Rather than asking readers if Mike Daisey’s dishonesty had shattered their belief that Apple had—at the very least—some ethical issues to deal with in the way their products are made, I redirected attention to what we knew to be true by, in part, reiterating the following:

Apple did not choose to become a participating member in the Fair Labor Association because of Mike Daisey. Nor did Tim Cook unveil Apple’s list of global suppliers and acknowledge that “much remains to be done” because of Mike Daisey. The“Apple Supplier Responsibility 2012 Progress Report”—the first real glimpse of the egregious violations being perpetrated by Apple suppliers—was not written by Mike Daisey.

With that in mind, I hope that we can let the Mike Daisey story take its well-earned place upon the official Journalism Wall of Shame and ultimately be forgotten as it deserves to be. Thanks to the FLA’s release of its “Foxconn Investigation Report” on Thursday, such a hope may be realized sooner rather than later.

Serving to confirm, or rather reconfirm what Apple has already openly admitted on more than one occasion, the FLA report does not look good. Observing several “gaps between desired and actual performance” in its results, the organization uncovered concerning occurrences of excessive overtime, as well as issues with compensation for said overtime. The FLA also found “several health and safety risks” present in the Foxconn facilities.

More specifically, yet unsurprisingly, the report noted several occurrences of 60-plus hour work weeks despite the Chinese regulation setting the maximum work week at 49 hours. When it comes to compensation problems, it was discovered that overtime payment is being calculated based on 30-minute increments, making the first 29 minutes of overtime labor of no additional cost to the supplier. As for the health and safety concerns, the largest problem seems to be the absence of communication. The FLA found that workers simply weren’t made aware of the existence of health and safety committees, knowledge which could have come in handy considering the presence of several safety infractions. Such an unsafe work environment paired with—for all the workers knew—a lack of available recourse made for what the FLA called “a widespread sense of unsafe working conditions among workers.”

Fortunately, this is not all lost on Apple, or Foxconn for that matter. In fact, both companies have already made a commitment to address these serious issues. Foxconn has vowed to reduce worker hours and rectify pay errors by July, 13 2013, bringing the company into compliance with both Chinese regulatory requirements and FLA recommendations. According to the Reuters report on the Apple-Foxconn agreement, the companies say they will focus on improving safety and health deficiencies as well.

“We think empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential,” Apple expressed in a Thursday statement. “Our team has been working for years to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple’s supply chain a model for the industry, which is why we asked the FLA to conduct these audits.”

Auret van Heerden, President of the FLA, also observed, “Apple and Foxconn are obviously the two biggest players in this sector and since they’re teaming up to drive this change, I really do think they set the bar for the rest of the sector.”

In light of what many might see as considerable progress, however, the Reuters report also noted the understanding that by comparison, work conditions at Foxconn’s facilities are far superior to those found at other Chinese manufacturers that provide the Western companies with cheap labor. This, of course, means that Apple has just barely scratched the surface when it comes to fulfilling its promise to improve worker conditions.

And while it’s a great start, the fact that Chinese suppliers and manufacturers, including Foxconn, are relied upon companies like Dell, HP, Amazon and others, is sure to make the resistance to improvements greater as Apple moves forward. The increased production costs associated with ensuring humane working conditions may not make Apple a whole lot of friends in high places. But at the same time, it will make them a lot of friends in places far lower than any person should ever have to be. And I think we all know which one is more important.