No Foxconn from Apple?

The Apple/Foxconn saga continues to take interesting turns. If you haven’t been following the story, Apple computer has been taking a beating in the U.S. press, mostly courtesy of the NY Times, regarding the treatment of the overseas workers who put most of its gleaming gadgets and awe-inspiring computers together. The national paper of record ran a scathing expose on conditions at Foxconn, the ginormous China-based manfacturer which is a major Apple subcontractor. Apple to its credit released the results of its own internal investigation, which though not as damning as the New York Times report, was hardly flattering.

Soon after the Times stories hit the streets, Apple announced that yet another investigation of conditions at Foxconn was being undertaken, at Apple’s invitation, by the Fair Labor Association, an international watchdog of labor conditions. In January, Apple became the first technology company admitted to the Fair Labor Association.

Eyebrows were quickly raised, however, about the thoroughness of that investigtation after the FLA’s President Auret van Heerden described conditions at Foxconn as “way, way above average” after just one visit to one of its sprawling facilities. Worse van Heerden suggested “the problems” at Foxconn could probably be attributed to boredom and monotony rather than a high-pressure work environment. Foxconn factories have suffered a number of fatal accidents and a score or so of worker suicides. It responded by ringing its upper windows with netting.

“The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm,” van Heerden said. “I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory,” he said. “So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It’s more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps.”

His comments were no surprise to critics of the FLA, who have described the association as a “fig leaf” for manufacturers seeking to whitewash abysmal labor conditions.

But just a few days after comments which seemed to suggest an impending Apple fudging of the problem, van Heerden was back in the news with comments that indicate Foxconn’s report card will not be a good one.

Bloomberg news reports that van Heerden said, “We’re finding tons of issues,” en route to a meeting where FLA inspectors were scheduled to present preliminary findings to Foxconn management. “I believe we’re going to see some very significant announcements in the near future.”

He did not elaborate on those findings, but the FLA plans to release more information about its inspection in the coming weeks. By then, the company will have had a chance to contest or agree to steps to prevent further violations and U.S. consumers will begin to have some understanding of how seriously Apple is committing itself to labor reform among its vast network of Asian subcontractors. Certainly no other U.S. high-tech manufacturer has gone even this far and many of them, like Apple, are Foxconn clients. The compounding investigations are already beginning to have some impact. Foxconn announced on Feb. 18 that it was raising its worker wages 16 to 25 percent–to $400 a month.

About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).