Auren van Heerden, the president of the Fair Labor Association, has already concluded that working conditions at Foxconn factories are much better than those at many other plants in China. The inspection of Apple’s major eight suppliers in the country, of which Foxconn is the tech giant’s key manufacturing partner, has just started. After a series of initial visits to Foxconn facilities, van Heerden is arguing that “the factories are first-class, the physical conditions are way above average.”
“When I stepped onto the Foxconn floor, I was surprised at how quiet it is compared with other plants,” FLA chief notes. “So the problem is not intensive work in a pressure-cooker environment, but rather a function of boredom, monotony, perhaps alienations.”
The statement refers to a number of suicides that have taken place at Foxconn in the past few years and have been typically blamed on inhuman conditions, since the manufacturer is known to demand large amounts of overtime while paying low wages. Van Heerden explains suicides, which have been regularly occurring at Chinese plants since the 1990s, with societal and cultural factors.
“Switching to an intense industrial lifestyle is quite a shock for young people who come to big cities from rural areas,” he comments. “And they can’t get the emotional support they need at factories.”
Van Heerden’s favorable report has been sharply criticized by activist group SumOfUs. “The FLA shouldn’t make any statements this early,” the organization’s executive director, Taren Stinkebrickner-Kauffman, claims. “What they’ve done so far is toured the premises by Foxconn executives. Were they really expecting that the company would readily show them the dark underbelly of the plant life on the first day?”
SumOfUs chief further alleges that the FLA is financed and controlled by the same firms it is set to monitor. He also believes that the organization outsources most of the “so-called monitoring” to for-profit companies. “All of their incentives line up to provide a clean bill of health to factories,” Stinkebrickner-Kauffman continues.
Just recently, the group delivered a petition to Apple around the world, asking the company to help improve working condition at its suppliers. Being now reportedly up to over 78,000 signatures, the petition seeks to make the next iPhone “the first ethical iPhone” in Apple’s history. Next week, SumOfUs members will deliver petitions to managers at local iPhone outlets.
However, Van Heerden denied speculations that the FLA may be generating a simplified, positive image of Apple suppliers. “Apple didn’t have to join our organization,” he explains. “The FLA system includes unexpected visits, full access, public reports. If Apple wanted to get away with Foxconn, there was a whole number of options available to them. The fact that they opted to join the FLA indicates that they are seriously concerned over the working environment of their employees.”
The planned study includes around 30 FLA members visiting two Foxconn facilities, one in Chengdu and another in Shenzhen. For over three weeks, they will anonymously interview approximately 35,000 workers on hiring practices, contract offerings, dorm room conditions, food quality, emotional health and if the company actually responds to employee complaints.
The data will reportedly be uploaded immediately, with a public interim report coming in early March. In a final report, the FLA will single out the facilities crying out for changes, and offer recommendations.