Is Apple Supplier Foxconn Finally Giving Its Workers a Fair Shake?

Apple and its factory partner, Foxconn, have made great strides in bringing Foxconn’s labor conditions into compliance with local laws, the Fair Labor Association said Tuesday. Not surprisingly, independent labor rights monitoring organizations remain skeptical that real progress has been made.

In a status report made public on Tuesday, the FLA reported that all of the 195 remedial actions that Foxconn had agreed to complete to come into compliance had been accomplished. More significantly, 89 action items were completed ahead of their deadlines, with another 76 due to be completed by the end of July 2013.

Not Really Made by Apple

Although products like the iPod and iPad bear Apple’s logo, their assembly and production are carried out by a network of factories across Asia and Taiwan. There, wages are a fraction of that of the United States, and working conditions aren’t as strictly regulated. But the cost savings are also passed along, resulting in higher profits for the manufacturer and lower price tags for consumers.

For several years, Apple has performed health and safety audits of those factories, provided reports of whether or not those suppliers conform to local labor laws - a practice that other companies do not emulate, at least publicly. Apple itself found that in many cases, suppliers failed to comply with Apple’s own code of conduct: just 38% of its suppliers met Apple’s mandated limits of 60 hours worked per week, for example.

In January, a firestorm of controversy erupted when The New York Times began publishing a series of investigative stories on working conditions within Foxconn, the largest supplier to Apple and many other top companies. Following that criticism about the working conditions at Foxconn, including conditions that led to an explosion at one facility, Apple agreed to allow the FLA to conduct a thorough investigation of those suppliers, beginning with three factories at Guanlan, Longhua, and Chengdou in China.

4 Areas for Improvement

The FLA identified four main categories of remedial actions that Foxconn needed to undertake:

  1. Reducing working hours
  2. Improving health and safety
  3. Improving employee relations
  4. Supplying overtime pay and necessary worker insurance.

In its report, the FLA said that Foxconn is moving ahead:

“Our verification shows that the necessary changes, including immediate health and safety measures, have been made. We are satisfied that Apple has done its due diligence thus far to hold Foxconn accountable for complying with the action plan, including the commitment to reform its internship program,” said Auret van Heerden, president and chief executive of the Fair Labor Association, in a statement. “When we finished our initial investigation in March, Foxconn promised to address concerns with its internship program by ensuring that student interns do not work overtime, their work has a more direct connection to their field of study, and they understand that they are free to terminate the internship if and when they wish.”

FLA representatives did not return calls for comment.

Documents posted to the FLA website indicate that Foxconn addressed many of the required changes via new policies issued in May or June.

Doubts Remain

But Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, which monitors worker conditions in factories overseas, said that it is unlikely that Foxconn could have solved its institutional problems in so short a time.

“The FLA’s position, as we understand it, is that it’s fine for Foxconn to continue violating overtime labor laws if they promise to clean it up by some time next year,” Nova told ReadWriteWeb. “And we don’t think that’s reasonable. Apple and Foxconn should obey the law, now.”

Nova also said that the reforms proposed by the FLA omit “the long track record of harsh, psychologically abusive management practices at the factories. There are no meaningful recommendations in that regard, and very likely no progress.” Nova also said he also doubted that allowing the workers the freedom to associate, form worker groups or unions and collectively bargain would occur in any meaningful sense.

“It’s hard not to be skeptical of a report that says that Foxconn has hit every single one of its commitments and done so ahead of schedule,” Nova said. “That is a radical departure of a decade-long track record at Foxconn.”

Looking Beyond Foxconn

Just as important, these issue stretch far beyond Foxconn. In a report issued in late July, China Labor Watch claimed that labor violations are not only still rampant at Foxconn, but also at other companies in Apple’s supply chain. That report specifically called out Ri Teng, a subsidiary of Pegatron, where an explosion injured several employees in December 2011.

On average, Ri Teng workers are on the job nearly 12 hours a day, compared to 10 hours a day at the Foxconn factory, the report found. The Ri Teng workers get only about one day of rest each month. There, the average hourly wage is 8.2 RMB or $1.30, China Labor Watch said, versus the average Foxconn hourly wage of 10.2 RMB or $1.62.

So while progress may be occuring, it’s unlikely that the controversy will go away anytime soon.

 

Generic factory image courtesy of Shutterstock.