Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Apple (March 2012)

Mar 2012

Apple’s negative publicity surrounding the treatment and welfare of workers in the plants where its wildly successful devices are made is well documented. Perhaps Apple has been singled out for scrutiny over worker welfare issues for two reasons.  Firstly, since the early 2000s, Apple has more than its hardware competitors, pioneered the almost total outsourcing of its manufacturing and currently does not operate any manufacturing plants of its own.  Instead it outsources to several strategic partners, the most important of which is Foxconn which operates giant manufacturing complexes mainly in China and Taiwan.  The second reason for the focus on Apple is its phenomenal success and more pointedly, the huge profits it generates from products made in Foxconn’s plants.   The worker safety issues at Foxconn came to a head in 2010 when fourteen suicide deaths were reported at its plants over a six month period prompting Chinese NGOs to label the company as a “labor camp” and its customers including Apple, HP, Dell and others to pledge closer inspection of conditions where their products were made. 

In February this year, Apple appointed the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct audits at the final assembly plants where its products are made.  The FLA is a non profit group headquartered in Washington DC that among other things, has a standard, the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct  which is based on the International Labor Organizations (ILO) standards.   In its Code of Conduct, FLA stipulates principles that manufacturing companies must adhere to if they are able to refer to FLA conformity in their promotional activities.  The FLA also conducts assessments of plants against its code.  Whereas most countries have labor laws that provide workers with varying degrees of protective rights, the ILO’s code (on which the FLA is based) attempts to, at the UN level, lay down global minimum requirements for worker welfare.  Predictably, such an endeavor is highly political and China, in particular, where the state employs vast numbers of people, is wary of having a labor code imposed on it.  Thus the FLA, which has an office in China, needs to be highly sensitive in the interpretation of the ILO codes.  Unionization issues, in particular, are highly sensitive to Chinese authorities.  The FLA is one of three leading standards bodies that attempts to practically implement the ILO and other norms, with a focus on manufacturing in emerging markets of products destined for reputation sensitive markets in the West.   Labor exploitation issues in the 1980s and 1990s involving plants where brands such as Levis, Nike, the Gap and Adidas were produced prompted the establishment of the FLA, Social Accountability International which is responsible for the SA 8000 standard and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP).  FLA, SAI and WRAP all operate and assess (or accredit external assessors) differing and sometimes competing worker welfare standards and between them have inspected thousands of factories in India, China, Vietnam, Turkey and elsewhere.

Of the three, WRAP and FLA have the largest number of certificate holders and FLA is the only one with a full office in mainland China, perhaps a factor in Apple’s decision to employ them.  The assignment is a high profile one for Apple, for FLA and for Foxconn and China.  Apple announced on February 13, 2012 “A team of labor rights experts led by FLA president Auret van Heerden began the first inspections Monday morning at the facility in Shenzhen known as Foxconn City.   As part of its independent assessment, the FLA will interview thousands of employees about working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management. The FLA’s team will inspect manufacturing areas, dormitories and other facilities, and will conduct an extensive review of documents related to procedures at all stages of employment.” 

Apple stated that the results of these independent audits would be available on the FLA website by early March, but as of March 29th, could not locate these.  

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