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Labor Association Monitoring Apple's Manufacturing Has a History of Letting Corporations Off Easy

Apple's chosen a labor monitor to keep an eye on its FoxConn factory that has long been criticized by anti-sweatshop activists.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

Wracked by weeks of bad press over the conditions under which its products are made, this month Apple called in the Fair Labor Association. “We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook in a February 13 release, “which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers.”

Cook promised inspections “unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in size and scope…” Two days later, FLA President Auren van Heerden told Reuters that so far he had found the FoxConn facilities—where workers had recently threatened mass suicide —“first class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm.”

Perhaps this should not have been a surprise. Corporations turn to the FLA during scandals for the same reasons celebrities turn to Larry King: it’s high-profile, it’s establishment-approved, and it won’t press as hard as the alternatives.

A History of Compliance

The FLA was formed in 1999 with funding and backing from the Clinton administration, following years of prominent anti-sweatshop activism in the United States. It came three years after Kathy Lee Gifford’s well-televised tears over alleged abuses in factories producing her clothing label. The FLA's Apple investigation represents its first foray into the tech industry. From the beginning, the FLA has described its approach as about bringing stakeholders into the process. Along with universities and nonprofits, several members of its board are apparel corporations. Companies play a major role in investigating themselves, and evaluating each others’ compliance.

An FLA spokesperson declined to comment.  But in an interview with the  New York Times, its Executive Director Jorge Perez-Lopez said the organization has successfully reduced child labor in China and Latin America and discrimination against pregnant workers in Latin America. Van Heerden defended the FLA system to  Reuters as “very tough.  It involves unannounced visits, complete access, public reporting.”

Charles Kernaghan, whose meetings with Honduran children making Gifford-branded clothing helped make their conditions an international story, takes a different view.  "The FLA has maybe 10% credibility," says Kernaghan, who directs the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.  "We've never seen anything from them that we would consider to be more than 50% or 30% accurate."

Kernaghan traces the impetus for the FLA to the mid-90's, when his organization (then called the National Labor Committee), after a lengthy stuggle, convinced a Vice-President of Gap to allow a Jesuit-led team of independent monitors into a factory in El Salvador.  "You had people that were not corruptible," says Kernaghan, "that were not in the pocket of the companies, and they began to monitor the factories, and they found every single violation we had found."  Kernaghan says management has told him that after Gap let the Jesuits in, all of its competitors began calling and saying, "Are you out of your mind?"

Kernaghan says that victory created a market for less aggressive alternatives that corporations could bring in instead.  "They got dollar bills in their eyes.." says Kernaghan.  "It was one phony group after another."  He cites the Harvest Ridge factory in Bangladesh, where the IGLHR filmed a 11 year-old worker worker describing 14-hour days working for 6.5 cents an hour without being allowed to sit down.  "If she fell behind her production goal, the manager would slap her very hard."  When Kernaghan testified about these abuses in Congress, management cited the FLA's finding that the factory was fully cimpliant.

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