With heightened publicity about Apple’s reliance on low-wage factories in China for the production of its iPhones and IPads, just when President Obama is launching a campaign for “insourcing” workers back to the USA, the latest soundbites in the Apple saga have to do with the company’s decision to bring in an independent auditor of working conditions at its “outsourced” supplier factories. This independent auditor happens to be the Fair Labor Association, an organization that we know well. Established in 1999, the FLA grew out of the Apparel Industry Partnership in the US and became a multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide. It has since expanded to monitor participating companies from outside the US, such as H&M and Adidas as well as suppliers headquartered in China, El Salvador, Hong Kong, Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. The FLA Board has a three-way balance among participating company representatives, civil society organizations and college and university representatives. The FLA methodology consists of corporate endorsement of a code of workplace practices, collecting compliance information and addressing compliance issues. We have known its CEO and President Auret van Heerden since well before the founding of the FLA in 1999. In fact, he was instrumental in conducting a survey of labour practices in export processing zones while an employee at the International Labour Organization in the 1990s and left the ILO to mobilize cooperation among diverse stakeholders who were looking to go beyond surveys and structured tripartism of governments, employers organizations and trade unions. We know that he is an inspirational and committed believer in multi-stakeholder cooperation to find lasting solutions to exploitative labour practices.
We are not surprised, then, to see that Apple, a dominant company in the technology world, has turned to the FLA to conduct an independent audit of three of its major suppliers for iPhones and iPads in China. We understand that Apple had already sought the FLA’s assistance on improving its own auditing methodology. So when the New York Times published reports in January 2012 and media attention escalated with further reports of hazardous and exploitative working conditions in factories producing Apple products, the FLA was called upon to conduct what is being described as the “most detailed factory audit in the history of mass manufacturing”. Apple has also joined the FLA as a full Participating Company member. See the announcement here. We interpret this to mean that Apple has agreed to unannounced independent external monitoring audits of factories in its supply chain, and that the company endorses the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct and 10 FLA company obligations oriented to publicizing non-compliance and implementing corrective actions.
Foxconn Technology Group is the first Apple supplier to be audited, to be followed by audits at factories run by two other suppliers, Quanta and Pegatron. The audit will involve interviewing thousands of employees presumably in circumstances that protect their freedom of expression. We know that Apple’s own audits since 2006 have turned up violations of failure to pay overtime, forced overtime, underage workers, and unsafe working conditions involving hazardous and toxic chemicals. This latter includes the unsafe levels of aluminum dust that has been described as contributing to explosions that killed and injured workers in a Foxconn plant. Without waiting for the audit, however, Foxconn has announced a 16 to 25 percent increase in wages and a reduction in overtime hours for assembly line workers in Shenzhen, with a base of CNY 1800 for a junior worker ($290 per month) and up to CNY 2200 (about $350 per month) for an employee who passes a technical examination. This is well above the mandatory minimum wage in Shenzhen. Some NGO critics, however, including a Hong Kong-based group called Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), want to see these companies commit to a “living wage”. In the SACOM website, a living wage in Shenzhen is estimated to be roughly CNY 2300 per month, or approximately $365. See here.
Apple is the first technology company to join the FLA. This is a very significant breakthrough for the FLA. However, we also know that the FLA had already expanded beyond the monitoring of textile, apparel and shoe factories to work with CMBD Member Syngenta on a comprehensive Syngenta Seeds Project to adapt the FLA methodology to farmers, their families and communities in agriculture. Syngenta started its involvement with the FLA in 2003 to cooperate on addressing child labour and unsafe working conditions in its cotton seed business in India. Even after this business was sold, Syngenta shifted the cooperation to its vegetable seed business, also in India. The Syngenta Seeds Project has introduced task-mapping and risk assessment tools in place of a compliance checklist and has also reinforced the importance of working in compliance projects with local stakeholder involvement. The FLA has described this inclusive strategy as a necessary component of its cooperation with Syngenta. See the FLA report of the project here and Syngenta’s report here. Syngenta might not have apple seeds in its repertoire, but we will be happy to join the iconic “Johnny Appleseed” in the cultivation of Apples and Blackberries and all kinds of technological gizmos for sustainable growth – and Decent Work - in the 21st century.