by Bill Snyder

Hey Apple and Foxconn: Don’t Break Promises to Improve Chinese Factories

Mar 30, 20124 mins
Computers and PeripheralsConsumer ElectronicsData Center

A long-awaited report from the Fair Labor Association confirms wretched conditions in factories that make Apple iPhones and iPads. While Apple and Foxconn have promised reforms to better the lives of Chinese workers, let's hope it's not just lip service.

Talk, as we all know, is cheap. While it’s refreshing this week to hear execs at Apple and Foxconn, the factory that makes iPhones, iPads and other devices, own up to shameful working conditions and promise reforms, the real test will come in the next year or so.

I don’t expect Foxconn, which employs well over 1 million workers, to make radical changes over night, but those of us who care about the fate of the people who make our products should insist those promises are kept.

A report released yesterday by the Fair Labor Association, which had been asked by Apple to inspect three Foxconn factories, said the company’s workers often put in more than 60 hours a week and sometimes go as long as 11 days without a day off, a violation of China’s labor laws, which cap the legal work week at 49 hours. Despite the long hours, Foxconn workers at one plant start at about $285 a month, and average wages are about $426 to $455 per month, according to the group’s report.

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Foxconn promised to reduce hours to the legal limit within 15 months, and said it will not reduce wages. That, of course, means that Foxconn will charge more to build products, and Apple will either pass the added costs on to consumers or take a hit to its profit margin. So far, industry analysts are predicting that Foxconn’s overtime reduction will not affect Apple’s product prices.

Apple, now the world’s most valuable company, could well afford to take the hit, but if instead it chooses to raise retail prices, I’d say fair enough. After all, we’re not talking about the price of bread here. We can afford to pay a bit more if that’s what it takes to improve the lives of the people who make those products.

There was concern before the report was published that the FLA would not do a thorough job. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. The FLA says it interviewed hundreds of workers and conducted an anonymous survey of 35,000 more, and spent some 3,000 staff hours monitoring conditions inside the factories.

Apple has been under pressure to clean up conditions in the factories of its contract manufacturers, and there have been calls for a boycott. A hard-hitting and meticulously reported series in the New York Times earlier this year garnered widespread attention. It revealed more than overly long work days. Workers at the plant are forced to live in crowded dorms, be on call at all hours of the day and night and are subjected to critically unsafe working conditions on the factory floor.

A monologue blasting Apple by an entertainer named Mike Daisey added more fuel to the fire, although it turned out that Daisey, who performed on NPR’s popular “This American Life,” had fabricated and exaggerated what he saw on a trip to China.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the founder of a progressive pressure group called SumOfUs, which had been very critical of Apple, sounded a somewhat skeptical note after the report was released.

“The proposed remedies in the FLA’s report could be a good step forward if implemented in an accountable and serious way – but we know that Apple made these same promises six years ago, only to continue to force workers into illegal overtime and dangerous labor practices the moment it thought people weren’t looking.”

What’s more, she asked why will it take 15 months to make these changes. “If Apple said to Foxconn tomorrow, ‘We will only buy products from you that have been made following the law,’ do you really think Foxconn couldn’t stop breaking the law sooner than 15 months from now?”

Stinerbrickner-Kauffman has a point. One of the major reasons Foxconn is so successful is its mastery of flexible manufacturing. That is, the ability to make lightning-fast changes to the manufacturing process. If it can cope with major changes at the last minute to the design of the iPad, why couldn’t it make rapid changes to its human relations practices?

Finally, there’s this: Old-fashioned reporting, which ignited widespread public outrage is responsible for the changes Apple and Foxconn are going to make. Informed consumers have power  — let’s keep on using it.