The Fair Labor Association (FLA) has embarked on a study of the working conditions in factories run by eight of Apple's suppliers in China, according reports by Reuters. After a plant that made iPad cases exploded in China last May, numerous worker suicides, and complaints about working conditions at Foxconn Technology Group, the suppliers have been under intense investigation.
Auret van Heerden, president of the FLA, noted that the working environment imposed onto the workers, which inevitably perpetuates boredom, could have contributed to the tragic suicides. After several days' worth of visits to the facility, Heerden commended that the conditions were not as slave-like as reported previously.
The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm, Heerden said, after his first visit.
I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory, he said. So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory. It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps.
He also attributed the problems to a cultural shift and the rapid industrialization in China. You have lot of young people, coming from rural areas, away from families for the first time. They're taken from a rural into an industrial lifestyle, often quite an intense one, and that's quite a shock to these young workers, he said.
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We find that they often need some kind of emotional support, and they can't get it, he added. Factories initially didn't realize those workers needed emotional support.
In the last decade, Apple products have grown, turning the company into one of the richest and most innovative in the world. Yet critics have continuously pointed out failures in the labor practices at factories where those products are made, in the same way critics cried out against sweatshop labor by companies like Nike.
Contrary to Heerden's observations, a series of recent New York Times articles on factories where Apple products are assembled have not dubbed the facilities as first class. Neither has a discussion on Foxconn's practices, released on Tuesday by PBS. The New York Times articles state that employees often endure excessive overtime, live in crowded dorms and work with underage children. Some stand until their legs swell and they can barely walk, and the supplier factories blatantly turn a blind eye to workers' health concerns.
Others have questioned FLA's motives. According to Fox news, Teresa Cheng, an international campaigns coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops, was angered by Heerdeen's comments.
Mr. van Heerden's comments are outrageous and shocking, even to those of us who have been monitoring the FLA's irresponsible reporting for years, she told Fox News. Attributing the suicides of sweatshop workers who make iPhones to mere boredom is insulting and the FLA's most creative argument to date for defending its corporate funders.
Heerden has fended off the accusations that his organization is merely a puppet for large companies like Apple, by asserting that his organization is independent and can be trusted.
Our most important protection against any kind of bias is that we publish our results, he told Wired magazine in an interview on Tuesday. Any interested party can check the tracking charts of our audit. You can see the gravity and the kind of issues that our auditors have identified. Our results speak for themselves.
Heerdeen is also confident that Apple is upholding its budding reputation as an ethics conscious company by at least trying to ameliorate the situation.
Apple didn't need to join the FLA, he said. The FLA system is very tough. It involves unannounced visits, complete access, public reporting. If Apple wanted to take the easy way out there were a whole host of options available to them. The fact that they joined the FLA shows they were really serious about raising their game.
FLA will also investigate other suppliers like Quanta Computer Inc, Pegatron Corp and Wintek Corp to analyze worker conditions. The information gathered will be compiled into a report, which will be available to the public in March.