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Apple's new Foxconn inspections could start chain reaction

It's a good bet other tech companies will join the Fair Labor Association and follow Apple's lead in moving to allow outside audits of manufacturing sites.

Workers assemble and perform quality checks on MacBook Pro display enclosures at an unspecified Apple supplier facility in Shanghai.

Apple said it has asked the Fair Labor Association to audit the company’s Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. The move comes after Apple has taken heat for working conditions in its supply chain.

According to Apple, a team of labor rights experts started inspections Monday at Foxconn City. Foxconn makes the iPad and iPhone for Apple. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) described itself this way:

Incorporated in 1999, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) is a collaborative effort of socially responsible companies, colleges and universities, and civil society organizations to improve working conditions in factories around the world. The FLA has developed a Workplace Code of Conduct, based on ILO standards, and created a practical monitoring, remediation and verification process to achieve those standards.

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, said in a statement:

We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers.

Cook has bristled at the argument that Apple doesn’t monitor its supply chain conditions. As noted before, Apple isn’t the only company that relies on China manufacturers for its wares.

Under Apple’s deal with the Fair Labor Association, inspectors will have unrestricted access to Foxconn, Quanta and Pegatron facilities. Those three contract manufacturers account for 90 percent of Apple’s product assemblies.

Apple, like other technology companies, has published an audit of its supply chain. Third-party verification, however, adds a little more meat to those audits.

Apple was among the early supporters of the FLA. The companies in the group, however, are mostly apparel players such as Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Nike, Liz Claiborne, and a host of others. It’s likely that other tech firms will join the Fair Labor Association and outside audits in Apple’s wake.

While you can question the FLA’s ability to audit well and whether these third-party inspections will have teeth, Apple’s move is a good one that could set off a chain reaction in the tech industry. Here’s a look at what Foxconn’s parent Hon Hai makes. As you can see, there’s a lot more than Apple gear being manufactured at Foxconn.

The big question is whether any audit can track how Foxconn workers are treated. The employee base has ballooned in recent years. Here’s the employee growth via Foxconn’s corporate responsibility report.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet's Between the Lines under the headline "Apple's external inspections of Foxconn a good first step."