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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.

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Having "realized that the corporations and the FLA had hijacked monitoring," Kernaghan says the IGLHR has shifted its demands to disclosure of factory locations and federal legislation.  "You had to get around the FLA, because they're useless." 

The FLA’s most vocal critic has been United Students Against Sweatshops, whose activism also helped spark the FLA’s creation. USAS supported the formation of an alternative organization, the Workers Rights Consortium, whose board is composed of student activists, university administrators, and representatives of labor and nonprofits. 

The FLA’s “purpose from the beginning, from our view, was to serve primarily as a cover-up for corporations and a smoke screen…” says Yale Law student Mary Yanik, a member of USAS’ Coordinating Committee and of the WRC’s Board. “It’s never been a strong worker advocate, and it’s been very detrimental to the anti-sweatshop movement.”  (Yanik made clear she was not speaking on behalf of the WRC)

USAS has long criticized the FLA on several counts: Companies’ suppliers are monitored by contracted investigators who the FLA hires with funds from participating companies.  These firms are supplemented by management staff monitoring their own factories. The FLA’s super-majority requirement gives its corporate members more than enough votes to block any action proposed by the universities or non-profits on its board. Not disclosing the specific factories that were inspected makes it harder for current or former workers, activists, or other monitors to contradict the FLA’s findings.  Following UNITE’s (full disclosure: a predecessor union to my former employer UNITE HERE) 2003 resignation in protest, there are no unions on the FLA’s board. Conducting interviews on company property makes it less likely workers will voice criticisms.

“If you’re speaking to the workers when the manager at over there, and the workers see you to be really buddy-buddy with their supervisors, it’s unlikely the workers are going to trust you,” says Yanik.  And companies that do wrong often get away with it.

In 2008, USAS slammed the FLA for welcoming underwear-manufacturer Hanes on board as its latest “Corporate Member.” The year before, activists had alleged retaliation when Hanes, which directly employs factory workers, fired over 30 from a Dominican Republic factory where workers were organizing. USAS charged that the FLA granted Hanes its new status, which came with donations to the FLA, without concessions on that campaign, or consultations with any of the workers or activists involved.

In recent years, some universities that affiliated with the FLA for accreditation of their apparel, including the University of Miami and Santa Clara University, have left the organization.

'Fox Guarding the Henhouse' at FoxConn?

The FLA’s handling of FoxConn Technology Group has so far done little to assuage critics’ concerns. FoxConn employs over a million factory workers producing products for companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Apple. FoxConn drew international attention in 2010, after dozens of employees committed suicide. That attention returned when workers threatened additional suicides this year. The 2010 suicides drew promises of reform—and the installation of nets.

This month FLA President Van Heerden told  Reuters he was surprised by “how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory. So the problems are not the intensity and burnout and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment factory…It’s more a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps.”

But as Michelle Chen, R.M. Arrieta, and Mike Elk have reported for  In These Times, workers and other monitors have told a very different story.

In a May 2011 report, Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) documented extreme overtime, poverty wages, wage theft, and “military management.” 

 
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