Workers on strike gather at the factory gate of Hi-P International in Shanghai… (Eugene Hoshiko, Associated…)
Responding to criticism after worker deaths and injuries at Chinese factories that produce iPhones and iPads, Apple Inc. and its suppliers have agreed to allow a labor watchdog group to monitor those facilities.
Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., said Monday that the Fair Labor Assn., an industry-funded labor monitoring organization, would evaluate some of the most controversial factories in Apple's Chinese supply chain.
The group plans to conduct interviews with thousands of workers and managers and will inspect the plants and worker dormitories with what Apple called "unrestricted access." Apple became a permanent member of the group, which conducts regular audits of the factories of its member companies.
Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Assn., said the group began its first inspection Monday at the so-called Foxconn City plant in Shenzhen, China, where huge numbers of Apple iPhones and iPads are assembled.
"We welcome Apple's commitment to greater transparency and independent oversight, and we hope its participation will set a new standard for the electronics industry," Van Heerden said in a statement.
In recent years, worker safety problems have plagued Apple's secretive Chinese operations, sparking complaints and protests from human rights groups. While Apple is reaping monster profits, critics said, the Chinese workers who manufacture its products live and work in factory "cities." Many toil long hours for low pay in plants that don't meet health and safety requirements, activists have alleged, and workers' off hours are spent in cramped dormitories.
The Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China, that employ tens of thousands of live-in workers have garnered the most attention. Last May, a fire at one of the plants killed four workers and injured nearly 20 others. In 2010, more than a dozen Foxconn employees jumped to their deaths from factory rooftops.
Apple's announcement comes less than a month after the New York Times published a series of articles detailing working conditions at factories that create Apple products.
"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, a corporate accountability group.
But Stinebrickner-Kauffman and other activists said the Fair Labor Assn., a nonprofit established in 1999 that claims to be independent, is heavily subsidized by the companies it audits.
The group relies largely on dues payments from its members, which include more than a dozen large international apparel firms, among them Nike Inc. and Adidas Group, both of which in the past have been the focus of reform campaigns targeting poor working conditions.
"It's a fox-guarding-the-henhouse model," said Teresa Cheng, 24, an international coordinator for United Students Against Sweatshops. "We see little to no reform in the supply chains of some of these huge apparel companies."
Fair Labor Assn. spokesman Aaron Pickering wrote in an email that the group conducts unannounced inspections and that its members "have no say in which factories are audited, and agree to full disclosure of the findings."
If a company fails to meet the fair labor criteria on which membership is based, it can be placed on a 90-day "special review." If the company has not addressed the problems by the end of the review period, the group can expel it from the program.
According to Pickering, no company has ever been expelled, and only two firms — apparel makers Russell and Gildan Activewear — have been put on the special probation following worker hiring issues. Both were reinstated within months.
Officials from Nike, Adidas and jersey maker Russell Brands sit on the FLA's board.
Cheng of the students group said her organization would like to see Apple force its suppliers to pay their workers more and allow them to elect their own representatives. Workers at the Foxconn plant reportedly make about $450 a month, or less than $20 a day.
Apple declined to comment on activists' concerns about the Fair Labor Assn.'s level of dependence on its member companies.
In recent months, Apple has rushed to position itself as a leader in improving working conditions in its supply chain and making those efforts more transparent.
In January the company for the first time released a list naming hundreds of its components suppliers around the globe, and every year it publishes a self-audit that in 2011 included 229 audits of factories around the world. The report noted instances of child labor at multiple facilities and many instances of employees working more than the 60-hour weekly limit set by Apple.
"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," Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said in a statement.
In January, Cook said that any suggestion that Apple did not care about the welfare of its workers was "offensive."