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Foxconn fiasco not Apple's finest hour

commentary Apple will likely emerge from the Foxconn dust-up relatively unscathed but it hardly covered itself in glory.

Toiling away in the service of Apple.
Toiling away in the service of Apple.

"We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain," Apple's CEO Tim Cook wrote in a late January letter to employees.

A couple of weeks later, Cook returned to the same theme at an investor conference, where he said that "no one in our industry is doing more to improve working conditions than Apple."


After the release of an audit yesterday by the Fair Labor Association we can measure those claims against the evidence. Apple may indeed be serious about improving the conditions of people working for its suppliers in China, but it's playing catchup. In fact, the FLA investigation, based partly on surveys of facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu operated by Foxconn, the subcontractor that makes products for Apple in China, documents the existence of widespread labor problems. Among the findings:

  • The average number of hours worked per week at Foxconn factories exceeded both the FLA Code standard and Chinese legal limits.
  • There were periods during which some employees worked more than seven days in a row without the required minimum 24-hour break.
  • During peak production periods, the average number of hours worked per week exceeded the FLA Code Standard of 60 hours. Also, there were periods in which some workers did not get one day off in seven days.
  • The investigation revealed that a considerable number of workers felt generally insecure regarding their health and safety.
  • The issue of aluminum dust was of particular concern, as this was the cause of an explosion at the Chengdu facility last year. (It should be noted that the report also noted progress one year after the Chengdu explosion, saying that Foxconn had cut the risks related to aluminum dust.)

Ever since working conditions at its subcontractor plants became front-page news, Apple has argued that it has always tried to do the right thing. After the FLA findings came out, Apple stuck to the script, saying that it fully supported the report's recommendations. It added that "empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential. "

Our team has been working for years to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple's supply chain a model for the industry, which is why we asked the FLA to conduct these audits. We share the FLA's goal of improving lives and raising the bar for manufacturing companies everywhere."

Reading that fluff, it's easy to imagine the team of Apple flacks dutifully sitting around the table for hours as they cobbled together the official statement.

But "we asked the FLA to conduct these audits"? Who's we?

It's not as if one fine day Apple management looked deep into their hearts and came to a collective decision that, yes, it was time to help the little people.

Have we already forgotten the two blasts last year at iPad factories that killed four people and injured 77? Or the incident in which 137 workers got sick after being ordered to use a dangerous chemical when they cleaned iPhone screens? (Charles Duhigg and David Barboza of the New York Times chronicled the human costs that accompany the manufacture of Apple products in China in an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism earlier this year.) And what about the spate of suicides and suicide attempts by Foxconn employees who could no longer take the pressure?

To be fair, the jobs at Foxconn and other plants are highly coveted by many workers who see them as a passport out of poverty. In fact, most of the people who responded to the FLA survey offered a response that would surprise the average American. When asked about working long hours, 48 percent said they found them reasonable, while 33.8 percent expressed interest in working more hours so they could make more money. Just 17.7 percent felt that they worked too much.

In part, that reflected the demographic composition of the workforce. The average age of the employees surveyed by the FLA was 27. Most -- some 65 percent -- said they grew up in a village. And more than 72 percent considered themselves to be migrant workers. That suggests a young, transient work force trying to make the best of it in a fast-industrializing nation. In that context, what's a few extra hours spent on a long shift -- long by Western standards, that is? It still beats working with the water buffalo back home.

If FLA President and Chief Executive Auret van Heerden is correct and the findings were no worse than at any other factory in China, Apple can relax because it will come out of this relatively unscathed. Besides, Foxconn has agreed to achieve full legal compliance regarding work hours by July 1 next year, while also agreeing to protect workers' pay. Meanwhile, global appetites for iPads and iPhones remains as ravenous as ever, and most consumers don't care much about this story.

But Apple didn't cover itself in glory. The problems that Foxconn now says it will fix were on full display long before outside inspectors got called in. Apple, a company with a famous reputation for eying every last detail, only had to open its eyes.