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Can Apple make ethical iPhones?

gadgets Updated: Apr 07, 2012 23:37 IST
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In the world of global manufacturing, it seems that multinational corporations are destined to take their turn in the sweatshop spotlight. Apple's turn, merely the latest, has taken an unusual twist.

Chief executive Tim Cook, on a trip to China this past week, visited a Foxconn factory and released photos of grinning workers on the iPhone production line. Cook's trip came after months of investigations, centered on Foxconn, of Apple's alleged sweatshop conditions. As the story gained momentum in part because of a theatrical performance by a man named Mike Daisey, who has since apologised for fabricating much of his narrative Apple hired a third-party monitoring group, the Fair Labour Association (FLA), to audit working conditions at its factories. The FLA issued a report on Thursday citing widespread overtime abuses and subsistence pay at Foxconn, and the manufacturer and Apple pledged to do better.

Apple and Foxconn appear to be on the right track. But independent monitoring and critical reports on factory standards have failed to make real change before. It is a promise to do better by an organisation that isn't really beholden to anyone. Monitoring, which may offer wary consumers a balm, used to be the best that international manufacturers had. That is no longer the case, and Apple long a leader in the tech world now has both an opportunity and a responsibility to prove itself a leader in the world of ethical working conditions. The company need only look as far as the garment industry for an example.

Global manufacturing from computers and electronic devices to cars and garments has been a target of anti-sweatshop activists for years. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford's teary apology after activists discovered Honduran sweatshops making her line of clothing for Wal-Mart helped spearhead the anti-sweatshop movement. Lawsuits against the Gap, Levi Strauss, Target, J.C. Penney and other retailers also helped raise awareness. In the mid- to late '90s, protests erupted on college campuses, and groups such as No Sweat Apparel and Behind the Label were born.

Self control
The industry's response was for the brands to begin monitoring their own factories. Beyond the obvious conflict of interest that arises when a corporation polices itself, there are other issues at play. Factories often have contracts with many companies, all of which now have their own codes of conduct some more enforced than others. Take overtime, for example. If the Gap allows up to 20 hours a week of overtime, but the local government allows only 10 as was the case several years ago in Shenzhen, China whose mandate should be followed? If the local minimum age for workers is 15, but one brand requires workers to be 16 and another brand 18, whose law prevails?

And companies soon realised that they could not effectively monitor their factories alone. Enter the third-party auditors, including Apple's new partner, the FLA. I've seen many auditors, including Social Accountability International and Verite, do very good work, even in China. But, hypothetically speaking, if a factory makes garments for the Gap and the Gap contracts with Verite, and that same factory also makes garments for Eileen Fisher and Eileen Fisher contracts with Social Accountability International, the factory will be ensnared in a constant tug of war among these various international players.

What we have is an industry where factories are monitored incessantly; where the quality and efficacy of monitoring varies wildly; where local laws, if they exist, are often ignored in favor of international buyers; and where factories pay enormous sums to a variety of monitoring groups just to be in the international game.

Monitoring, when done effectively, takes a lot of time, from two days to a week. It's not simply a matter of walking around a factory checking ventilation systems, light bulbs and fire exits; it's painstakingly comparing export records with buyers' contracts and calendars (to make sure that work is not happening on a Sunday, say) and sometimes even weather reports. If multiple groups are auditing a factory annually, it can spend weeks out of each season just working with them. One factory I visited in China had an entire department devoted solely to working with the many monitors who came through.

On top of that, third-party monitoring is very expensive. The International Labour Organisation puts the cost at $1500 to $3000 per audit, and many factories are audited five or six times in one month, though the frequency varies greatly.

Dire straits
Underage employees are often weeded out by auditors simply walking around attempting to spot young-looking workers most often girls are thumbing through employee records. I interviewed dozens of workers in the course of writing a book about the global manufacturing industry, and every one told me that she would help hide underage co-workers if need be, because the families of these girls must be in dire straits to send their daughters to work.

There is, though, a better way. Cambodia has proved it. In the late 1990s, the country negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration that linked good factory conditions to increased access to the US market. Cambodia brought in the International Labour Organisation to oversee factory monitoring and create unions, among other things, and in less than a decade, garments became the country's primary export more than 95 percent of all goods exported, in fact. Eventually, the ILO turned over administration of the programme to local authorities. And while there were factories that fell out of compliance, and mistakes were made, by and large it was a successful experiment.

Today, federal law guarantees the garment workers of Cambodia breast-feeding breaks, 43 paid vacation days annually, medical clinics on site and 90-day paid maternity leave, among other things. The programme, called Better Factories Cambodia, has become a model for many other countries.

That programme, now called Better Work, is used in Haiti, Lesotho, Jordan, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Vietnam. It costs $7 million to $10 million over the course of five years to establish the programme though in a country the size of China, it would be much more. While it might sound like a lot of money, it is far more economical than the ad hoc system of third-party monitoring.

Apple, admittedly, is in a tight spot. China does not allow formal labour unions, and labour laws are generally set by prefecture rather than at the federal level. Allowable overtime, for example, might differ from one area to another. To get around this, one factory I visited in China had created its own worker-led union to advocate for workers with management.

The reality is that Apple has the influence, economically and otherwise, to flex a little muscle. The company has long been visionary when it comes to technology that enhances the lives of privileged Westerners. Now let's see if it can take on the challenge of improving the lives of its overseas workers.

(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)

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