Memo to Journalists on Impending Fair Labor Association Report on Apple Working Conditions

March 26, 2012

This week, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) is expected to publish a report on working conditions and labor practices at Foxconn facilities in China manufacturing products for Apple. The purpose of this memo is to place that forthcoming report in context, based on the history of Apple’s statements and pledges concerning these issues, the information already publicly known about labor practices in Apple’s supply chain, and the analysis of truly independent labor rights groups as to what steps Apple and Foxconn should actually be taking to address labor rights abuses.

There are several key points:

1) The Fair Labor Association will report that violations of workers’ rights are occurring at Foxconn. The FLA has no alternative but to do so, for the following reasons:

          A.  Serious violations of labor standards at Foxconn – including excessive overtime, dangerous working conditions, and abusive management practices – have already been documented, many times, by independent researchers and by respected journalists.

          B. Apple itself has admitted a number of these violations in its own public statements.

C. The FLA’s own credibility as an investigative body, in question from the outset because of its financial and organizational relationship with Apple, was badly damaged its CEO’s bizarre decision to issue public praise for Foxconn after the FLA had barely begun its audit.

Given this history, a positive audit report by the FLA, glossing over abuses at Foxconn, would cause the FLA’s credibility to drop to zero and would defeat the purpose of the entire exercise – which is to convince opinion leaders and consumers that Apple is taking the labor rights problems at Foxconn seriously and making a genuine effort to address them. Apple needs the FLA’s report to be critical of labor practices at Foxconn in order to combat the impression of a clumsy cover-up created in the minds of some observers by the FLA’s early statements and in order to lend credence to Apple’s claims that it is committed to transparency and reform.  We would therefore be shocked if the FLA’s report did NOT conclude that serious abuses are taking place (excessive overtime, substandard health and safety practices, abusive management, etc.) and if the FLA did NOT acknowledge that many Foxconn workers are aggrieved and disaffected.

For these reasons, a critical report from the FLA will not, in and of itself, constitute proof that a new day is dawning in Apple’s supply chain. It will only be proof that the FLA and Apple are smart enough to understand that no one, at this point, is going to be fooled by a whitewash.

2)  Apple does not need the FLA, or any other hired monitor, to tell it that the rights of workers are being violated at Foxconn. Indeed, it remains unclear why audit reports by a group like the FLA are of any actual value at this juncture. The problems at Foxconn are widely known, having been documented in multiple investigations by researchers more independent and aggressive than the FLA. Apple need only read the reports of groups like SACOM, China Labor Watch and SOMO, or journalistic accounts, or, indeed, its own public “supplier responsibility reports.” The question is whether Apple is finally going to make the sweeping changes needed to end these abuses and provide decent wages and working conditions.

3) The FLA report will likely include promises from Apple and Foxconn that they will undertake “remediation”: reduce excessive overtime, address health and safety hazards, possibly implement additional wage increases and take other steps to improve worker morale. In evaluating the seriousness and significance of these promises, it will be important to bear in mind the following:

A. We have been down this road before. Back in 2006, when the abuses at Foxconn were first exposed to a US audience, Apple admitted that violations were occurring, announced that it had asked an outside body to audit its factories (presenting this as a major step forward), and promised that it was taking bold steps to put an end labor rights violations at Foxconn. Among other promises, Apple insisted that excessive overtime would soon be a thing of the past, because of robust preventative mechanisms Foxconn had supposedly put in place. Below are statements made by Apple in 2006, concerning labor rights problems and factory auditing in general and overtime violations specifically. Compare these to the statements made on these subjects by Apple in January 2012, which follow.

Apple  in 2006:

“Employees worked longer hours than permitted by our Code of Conduct, which limits normal workweeks to 60 hours and requires at least one day off each week…[Foxconn] has enacted a policy change to enforce the weekly overtime limits set by our Code of Conduct. The policy change has been communicated to supervisors and employees and a management system has been implemented to track compliance… Supervisors must receive approval from upper level management for any deviation.”

“We’ve engaged the services of Verité, an internationally recognized leader in workplace standards dedicated to ensuring that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions. We are committed to ensuring compliance with our Code of Conduct and will complete audits of all final assembly suppliers in 2006… In cases where a supplier’s efforts in this area do not meet our expectations, their contracts will be terminated.”

Apple in 2012:

“We continue to address excessive work hours, and this has been a challenge throughout the history of our program…Apple limits factory working hours to a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work — except in emergencies or unusual circumstances…Reducing excessive overtime is a top priority for our Supplier Responsibility program in 2012…

“Apple is the first technology company to be admitted to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA has made incredible progress over the past decade to improve working conditions and protect workers… We will open our supply chain to an FLA auditing team. This team will measure our performance against the FLA’s own Workplace Code of Conduct…If a supplier is unwilling to change, we terminate our relationship.”

The average consumer concerned about how her next iPhone or iPad will be manufactured could be forgiven for wondering why the promises Apple made in January of this year (and will likely amplify in the FLA’s report) are any more likely to prove sincere than the virtually identical promises the company made six years ago. Consumers could also be forgiven for wondering why, since audits of Foxconn facilities were carried out beginning in 2006 by “an internationally recognized leader in workplace standard,” it was necessary to announce again, in 2012, that an outside group has been hired to do the exact same thing.

B. The new round of promises of reform that we are likely to see from Apple this week should be measured not against Apple’s or the FLA’s version of what constitutes meaningful progress, but against internationally recognized labor standards, the demands of independent labor rights organizations, and the expectations that can reasonably be placed on a company with the enormous resources that Apple has at its disposal. We summarize these below and refer you to the attached joint letters whose signatories include organizations that have been working for years to protect the workers who make products for Apple and other electronics giants. A meaningful program of labor rights reform at Foxconn and other Apple suppliers would include:

I. The implementation, without delay, of a genuine living wage for all workers making Apple products, for a regular workweek (which is 40 hours in China). Given Apple’s profit margins and available financial resources, there is no excuse – economic, moral or practical – for any worker employed in the production of goods for Apple to go one more day without being paid a living wage. While there is not currently a consensus living wage figure for China, we have been informed by the Worker Rights Consortium that such a figure would under no circumstances be less than $3.50 an hour, as a net wage (after payroll deductions), which means at least 4,000 yuan per month, gross. Incremental wage enhancements are not enough; everyone knows that Apple can easily afford a genuine living wage.

II. An immediate end to all overtime hours in excess of the legal maximum (36 hours per month in China). Apple defends its failure to address this issue effectively over the last six years by suggesting that it is somehow a highly complex and intractable problem that does not lend itself to any easy or quick solution. This is nonsense. Excessive overtime is a very easy problem to fix for a company that actually wants to fix it. It simply requires hiring enough workers so that the necessary work can be done without individual workers having to work an illegal schedule, paying a living wage for regular work hours so that workers themselves are not put in a position where they desperately need to work long overtime hours to survive, and adjusting delivery deadlines so that Apple’s own demands on Foxconn and other suppliers don’t necessitate illegal hours (for a perfect illustration of how this works, see the NY Times article from January 26, 2012, quoting a former Apple executive describing how thousands of workers were dragged out of bed by Foxconn in the middle of the night and compelled to work 12-hour shifts so that there would be no delay in the delivery of the first generation of the iPhone). Apple has failed to eliminate excessive overtime not because it is hard to eliminate, but because the ability to have Foxconn impose illegally long hours when convenient is not an advantage Apple wants to relinquish.

III. Fundamental reforms of workplace safety and health practices, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and access to factories for genuinely independent groups to train workers.

IV.  Action by Apple to ensure that workers can democratically elect their own representatives and bargain with Apple and its suppliers for better wages and conditions. There is simply no way worker rights will ever by consistently and effective protected in factories like those operated by Foxconn unless workers are in a position to advocate for themselves and defend their own rights and interests. Workers should not have to resort to threats of suicide to get Apple’s attention. Instead, their right to collective representation and bargaining, recognized under international law and standards, should be respected.

If Apple does not make these minimal commitments, and identify mechanisms in addition to the FLA (an organization funded and governed by Apple and other corporations) to enforce them, then there is no basis for crediting this latest round of labor rights pledges and promises as anything under than a sophisticated public relations exercise.

Conclusion:

At this point, the question is not whether there are labor rights violations at Foxconn (or other Apple suppliers), since the cat has been out of the bag on this since 2006. And the question is not whether Apple and Foxconn will promise, again, to address these abuses – since they will unquestionably do so. The question is whether Apple will actually make the fundamental changes in labor practices at Foxconn and other suppliers necessary to end the exploitation and abuse that plagues the Apple workforce. If this is really Apple’s intent, it will commit to a genuine living wage for all workers, an immediate end to excessive overtime (not just below the 80+ hours per month allowed by Apple’s weak labor code but below the legal limit of 36 hours per month in China), credible health and safety reforms, far broader transparency, and a commitment to protect workers’ right to democratic representation and collective bargaining.

We are concerned – as are labor rights groups around the world – that this week’s exercise will consist of the following 1) The FLA will report violations that Apple and the public have been aware of for years and then present this as some sort of revolution in transparency, and 2) the FLA will give credence to another round of promises from Apple and Foxconn that are unlikely to be kept and that fall well short of what is needed to achieve decent working conditions.

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