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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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“Some of my roommates weep in the dormitory,” Foxconn worker Chen Liming told SACOM.  “I want to cry as well but my tears have not come out.” A January  New York Times article described what happened when Apple decided the soon-to-be-released iPhone 5 needed different screens: “A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories…Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift…”  (As I’ve reported for  In These Times, working for Apple in its U.S. retail stores is no workers’ paradise either.)

“I’m amazed that the FLA would give one of the most notoriously abusive factories in the world a clean bill of health—based, it appears, on nothing more than a guided tour provided by the owner,” FLA Executive Director Scott Nova told the  New York Times February 16.  “If the FLA wants to convince people that it can somehow conduct an impartial investigation of Apple, despite being funded by Apple, this is not a good way to start.”

Five days later, the FLA issued an updated statement saying that “This thorough investigation continues to progress in the same way as each of the FLA’s other assessments and investigations have – fairly, thoughly and independently.”  The statement said that the investigation would include both on-site and off-site interviews.

USAS International Campaigns Coordinator Teresa Cheng says using offsite interviews is “an aberration for the FLA,” and that she has “no doubt that their decision to even do off-site interviews would be because of public pressure and critique.” But she says such interviews are unlikely to result in a more critical report. In some cases, charges Cheng, the FLA has “contracted staff who’ve made conclusions indicting companies, and implicating companies in conduct as extreme as giving death threats to union leaders…and the FLA has even overridden the conclusions of its own investigators.”

The FLA’s limits as a force for “Fair Labor” aren’t just about low standards—they’re about workers’ power to judge their own labor conditions. This is an issue that the anti-sweatshop movement long wrestled with, and it’s why USAS avoids calling for boycotts without the support of a factory’s own workers.

While the FLA may claim credit for publicizing particularly egregious conditions, Yanik says its can’t change the industry because it doesn’t meaningfully support workers’ right to organize. She cites the case of the Jerzees de Honduras factory. “The FLA discouraged the workers that were trying to form a union from lodging a complaint.”  After workers were fired for organizing, charges Yanik, FLA monitors “said everything was fine…a few months later the FLA had to go back and retract its entire report.”

“The only way to really address these problems is to empower workers…” says Yanik.  “Workers in these factories are always going to be the best enforcers. The FLA has never taken that view.”

"If workers have rights, and they can exercise those rights," says Kernaghan, " they will be in...a hundred thousand times better position than to have the FLA fly in once in a while and talk to workers who are terrified to talk to them.  They should get out of the way."

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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