Apple on Monday announced it had requested third-party audits of the working conditions at the foreign factories where its most popular products, from the iPhone to the iPad, are assembled.
The audits, which are being conducted by “socially responsible” business trade group the Fair Labor Association (FLA), began on Monday and will run through “later this Spring,” according to Apple. Audits will involve inspectors visiting production facilities, reviewing documents, speaking with workers one-on-one and through anonymous forms, and giving them business cards to allow them to follow up later, in case working conditions deterioriate or punitive action is taken against workers who speak up.
The results of the first inspections — of two Chinese factories owned by Taiwanese manufacturing company Foxconn, where the bulk of Apple’s mobile devices are assembled — will be posted in “early March” on FLA’s website. By the time the investigations are completed, FLA will have looked at facilities accounting for 90 percent of Apple’s production.
“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,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a statement posted on Apple’s website.
“We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain,” Apple said in a statement provided to TPM, pointing out that the company has conducted its own internal audits of suppliers since 2006 and published the results online. However, the new audits will go into unprecedented detail about supplier practices, and are for the first time being conducted by an independent third party.
The move was greeted with a smattering of applause and a dose of skepticism by workers rights’ advocates, who had stepped up protests against the company in recent weeks, following a series of reports detailing atrocious, in some cases fatal, working conditions at Foxconn’s factories in the cities Shenzhen, China and Chengdu, China respectively.
On Friday, a few activists working under the banner of two organizations staged a protest at six Apple stores around the world, including those in New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. and abroad in London, UK, Sydney, Australia and Bangalore, India.
The protesters varied in number (only four showed up in New York), but all hand-delivered printed copies of an online petition with over 250,000 signatures, calling upon Apple to create “a worker protection strategy for new product releases,” and to release the “NAMES of the suppliers found to have violations and WHAT those violations are, so that there is transparency around the monitoring effort.”
The author of the petition is Mark Shields, a D.C.-based consultant and Apple fanatic who was devastated to learn — from a “This American Life,” episode — about the poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories, and decided to do something about it. He also participated in the D.C. protest.
The other two organizations involved in the protest were Change.org, a website launched in 2007 to facilitate online grassroots campaigns, and SumofUs, a non-governmental organization launched in late 2011 to “hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable and just path for our global economy.”
“We were very excited to see Apple’s announcement this morning,” said Amanda Kloer, director of organizing at Change.org. “It was an unprecedented step when it came to improving transparency.”
“This new announcement shows the pressure is working — more than a quarter million people have joined our call for an ethical iPhone 5 and Apple has clearly heard us,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Executive Director of SumOfUs.org. “But instead of actually solving the problem, they’re trying to whitewash it — hiring a business-funded group with a long track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece. Apple consumers want real action to improve workers’ lives, not more spin. We’re not going to be satisfied until the workers who make our iPhones have safe and healthy working conditions.”
Apple’s been under increased pressure lately over reported inhumane labor practices of its manufacturers, Foxconn in particular. Foxconn had already been the focus of international media scrutiny following a string of worker suicides throughout 2010. Foxconn told Wired magazine in February 2011 that the issues had been resolved thanks to new counseling programs and other benefits for workers (not to mention the installation of new suicide safety nets), but writer Joel Johnson noted that the work was still alienating at best.
But the story continued in 2012. On January 25 New York Times is startling in recounting the numerous vivid abuses reportedly suffered by workers while putting together iPads and iPhones, including under-age labor, fatal explosions, unpaid overtime, cramped worked housing and a deceptive and dishonest management that punished workers who spoke out, among other ills.
Before that, WBEZ’s popular public radio show “This American Life,” detailed the conditions at the factory from a firsthand account by contributor Mike Daisey (the creator of “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”).
Daisey took to his personal blog on Monday to express his thoughts on Apple’s latest move, applauding the company for heeding the complaints but urging it, and the entire tech industry, to go further in demanding supplier accountability.
“This [Apple] press release was sent out in prime time on a Monday,” Daisey wrote, “This indicates that Apple has had a change of tactics—they have begun to hear the outrage of millions of Apple users around the world, and they are starting to understand the danger they are in. They have begun to understand that their choices may have caused irreparable harm to their brand.”
However, as Daisey added: “It’s vital to remember that the entire electronics industry is being put on notice—horrifying conditions are everywhere in the supply chains of all our major electronics brands, and this is the moment to exert that pressure. Samsung, Dell, Amazon, Acer, Lenovo, Motorola, Sony…the list is very, very long. Reforming how Foxconn works will help millions, but it is going to take a real coalition to change this industry.”
Foxconn’s other major clients include Intel, Dell, Sony, Cisco, IBM, HP and Lenovo, according to files obtained after the Foxconn website was hacked in early February (by a group called SwaggSec) in protest of the Taiwanese manufacturer’s working conditions.
Apple revealed its other major suppliers for the first time in January, publishing a list of 156 companies online. It’s unclear at this time just how many of those companies the new audits will reach.
Apple also noted separately to TPM that it became “first technology company admitted to the Fair Labor Association” in January.
Still, advocacy groups are still holding out for Apple to publish a “worker protection strategy” in time for the reportedly imminent launch of the iPad 3, said to be unveiled the first week of March, according to All Things D.
“We hope Apple continues to honor and expand upon its commitment, including a proactive worker protection plan,” said Change.org’s Kloer. “It’s important that Apple takes steps as new products are rolled out, especially the iPad 3.”
Editor’s note This American Life on March 16 announced it was retracting the entirety of its episode on Apple due to “significant fabrications.”