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Will Apple's New Factory Inspections Help Chinese Workers?

We talk to a labor rights expert about what's going on in Apple's troubled Chinese factories.

Abuses at Chinese electronics factories that manufacture Apple products—including underage labor and unsafe working conditions—have distressed the company’s fans in the United States. Apple announced that a group called the Fair Labor Association would undertake inspections of those factories, and that the results would be released publicly. What does that mean?

It means Apple is following in the footsteps of other major brands that became symbolic of the moral breakdown at the end of the supply chain. The Fair Labor Association was founded in 1999, under the auspices of President Bill Clinton, by a group of companies—including then bad-behavior poster child Nike—NGOs, and universities (which are major apparel buyers) to monitor conditions in factories after complaints from human rights activists and consumers. While FLA inspections have uncovered abuses, the association has also seen problems go uncorrected at the companies under its watch, leading to complaints from independent labor activists, one of whom calls the group's work a “fig leaf.”

Apple became the first technology company to join the FLA in January; it’s not clear how Apple came to join the organization, but it has two years to bring itself into compliance with the FLA’s worker code of conduct, which prohibits a variety of unfair practices. The FLA began inspecting Apple suppliers in Shenzen, China, on Monday, and is expected to release the results publicly in March.

I called Apple and the Fair Labor Association to learn more about their inspections and the two organizations’ relationship, but neither returned phone or e-mail messages.

I did reach Dan Viederman, the CEO of Verite, a labor rights assessment and policy NGO that works with companies including Apple, and other organizations around the world. He talked to us about Apple’s situation—and the real problems that underlie it.

GOOD: How seriously should we take these inspections?

DAN VIEDERMAN: As multi-stakeholder institutions go, the FLA has reasonably robust assessment process… The FLA as an institution is governed by a combination of companies, NGOs and universities, and so from that perspective its more credible than an institution that only has companies in its governance.

GOOD: What does a robust inspection look like?

VIEDERMAN: The biggest distinguishing factor for the credibility of the assessment is the quality of the information that’s gathered from workers directly. The vast majority of assessments are done by consulting companies that are inexpert at gathering information from workers and engaging workers. One of the hallmarks of NGOs in this world, including Verite, is gathering information from workers in a way that makes sure they feel secure in revealing that information. We protect them from any reprisals… they can be sharing information in a very difficult situation.

The FLA’s process, as I understand, also engages in information gathering from workers.

GOOD: What kinds of questions do you ask the workers?

VIEDERMAN: Our assessments basically go through a fairly extensive interview form that covers the main code of conduct categories—essentially, what conditions are they working in, have they experienced any harassment, have they been paid on time, do they see any safety violations, have they experienced any reprisals for participating in trade unions or worker associations. The questions are derived form the standard code of conduct categories, the ILO conventions and laws.

Gathering this information is an art, gathering this information from someone who could get punished for answering you.

GOOD: What happens to that information?

VIEDERMAN: The assessment is only the first part, an initial response to clarify what’s going on. What really matters is what benefit accrues to workers after the assessment is completed. That’s the result of other steps and system changes that need to be undertaken.

GOOD: Do you think Apple should have taken those type of steps sooner? The company says it has audited all of its factories each year since 2006.

VIEDERMAN: What I want to say is that in many ways Apple is a leader; in two respects, in sharing information about what they find in the assessments that they’ve undertaken, and then in strategically resolving some of what they find, and there I’m referring to the work that we’ve done with them on migrant workers in their supply chain. In that work, they are the only company to have quantified the benefits that has accrued to workers as a result of their assessments. As they’ve divulged, $6.7 million were returned to migrant workers who had been cheated out of that money. That’s a real area of leadership, there’s no other company that has done that.

The other thing I’d say about that question of whether or not they should know, in our sector we know what has gone on in those facilities because… they have divulged an awful lot of what they have found over the last couple years. It’s important to recognize that sharing of information indicates they internally did know a lot of what was going on and was in process of taking steps to resolve it. It’s always reasonable to ask whether more could have been done.

GOOD: Is Apple being mistreated by the public here?

VIEDERMAN: It’s very difficult for consumers to know what’s a good company and what’s a bad company. At this point, people are focused on Apple because they’ve heard so much news about them. If some sort of consumer attention to Apple isn’t matched by consumer attention to companies that aren’t being as [transparent]—FoxConn is a supplier to every major electronics company in the world. If consumers are saying, I don’t want to buy Apple products because of what happened at FoxConn, consumers are not able to distinguish between good and bad performance on the part of companies. If we want consumers to deliver a consistent message of rewarding good performance, they have to be active off a different set of information than they available to them right now.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jurvetson

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