The recent worldwide uproar over deplorable - and sometimes fatal - work conditions at Apple's Foxconn plants in China certainly got Apple's attention. In a response time measured in weeks, Apple sought to allay critics by announcing "that the Fair Labor Association will conduct special voluntary audits of Apple's final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu..."
While reports of brutal conditions, and a wave of worker suicides, have made the media before, this latest focus was sparked by a series of detailed reports in The New York Times. As Speed Matters reported on January 30, 2012, the Times was acting on information provided by Hong Kong-based labor NGOs Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) and China Labour Bulletin.
In addition to media attention, Apple was on the receiving end of a series of petitions and demonstrations that threatened - if only slightly - to tarnish the company's brilliant and state-of-the-art reputation. Although the outcry apparently had no effect on the company's soaring stock price - it hit an unprecedented $500 a share on February 12 - Apple execs were forced to deal with a barrage of constant criticism. So, they turned the issue over to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a move which immediately raised as many questions as answers.
The FLA, with offices in DC, Geneva and Shanghai, was founded in 1999 in response to a similar clamor over conditions at Nike's overseas factories. Currently, the group cites a membership of "34 companies, nearly 200 universities and more than 1,000 college logo licensees," that has "inspected more than 1,300 factories in Asia and Latin America, uncovering myriad violations."
In theory, the FLA board consists of six each corporations, universities and NGOs. But therein is the difficulty. Not only are contemporary universities united at times to corporate donors, but most of the NGOs also count major corporations among their backers - in some cases the very corporations that the FLA needs to investigate. No matter how virtuous the FLA's intentions, its mission is undercut to a degree by its governance.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, told the Times that, "The F.L.A. does some good work, but we don't think it's appropriate for them to call themselves independent investigators because they're in part funded by companies. Independent monitoring means you're generally independent of the companies."
Speed Matters believes that the light of public scrutiny is both good and necessary, but not sufficient. Until workers themselves possess the power to counteract abuses of owners - whether in China or the U.S. - exploitation will continue. In short, inspections are no substitute for worker organization as a way to enforce healthy, safe, and good working conditions.
And indeed, the work of the FLA bears that out. Even if the FLA were thoroughly independent, it has limited reach, for as the Times noted, "The association's monitors inspected 190 factories in 2010, out of the 4,703 supplier factories that its member companies use." Workers and their unions, on the other hand, are always on the factory floor and know better than any NGO where the abuses lie.
Fair Labor Association Begins Inspections of Foxconn (Apple press release, Feb. 13, 2012
In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad (New York Times, Jan. 26, 2012)
The Hong Kong activists who've taken on Apple (Speed Matters, Jan. 30, 2012)
Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) (website)
Critics Question Record of Monitor Selected by Apple (New York Times, Feb. 13, 2012)