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February 14, 2012

As Criticism Mounts Against Apple, Gadget Giant Takes Steps To Alleviate Abusive Working Conditions: FLA Begins Investigation Of Foxconn City This Week — Which Could Spearhead a New Era of Tech-Company Transparency

On the heels of growing criticism of the working conditions in the Chinese factories that builds its products, Apple announced this week that it has asked the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an organization "dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide," to investigate Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China. The first inspections are now underway in the Shenzhen factory known as Foxconn City. "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 CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. "The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports," he added, CNET reports. Cook has bristled at the argument that Apple doesn't monitor its supply chain conditions. As noted before, Apple isn't the only company that relies on China manufacturers for its wares. Under Apple's deal with the Fair Labor Association, inspectors will have unrestricted access to Foxconn, Quanta and Pegatron facilities. Those three contract manufacturers account for 90 percent of Apple's product assemblies. Apple, like other technology companies, has published an audit of its supply chain — but third-party verification adds a little more meat to those audits. Apple was among the early supporters of the FLA. The companies in the group, however, are mostly apparel players such as Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Nike, Liz Claiborne and a host of others. It's likely that other tech firms will join the Fair Labor Association and outside audits in Apple's wake, reports CNET.

Although Apple doesn't own Foxconn, the company's close ties with the manufacturer, which produces iPhones and iPads, have put the gadget company in critics' crosshairs. Cook said recently that Apple was monitoring the situation at Foxconn and that his company conducts audits and inspections. But that may not yet have been enough. Last week, for instance, CNN published an interview with an 18-year-old Foxconn employee. The young girl, called "Miss Chen" to protect her identity, described forced overtime and the inability to receive benefits and sick days. Her job includes affixing stickers onto iPad screens, and her work life, she says, makes her feel dehumanized. "It's so boring, I can't bear it anymore," she told CNN. "Everyday is like: I get off from work and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It is my daily routine and I almost feel like an animal," she added, CNET reports in a blog post by Don Reisinger.

While you can question the FLA's ability to audit well and whether these third-party inspections will have teeth, Apple's move is a good one that could set off a chain reaction in the tech industry. After all, there's a lot more than Apple gear being manufactured at Foxconn. The big question is whether any audit can track how Foxconn workers are treated. The employee base has ballooned in recent years, CNET reports in a companion blog post by Larry Dignan.

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