Apple, Foxconn Labor Promises Questioned

Nov 08, 2012 (10:11 AM EST)

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Claims that working conditions at Apple supplier Foxconn's manufacturing facilities in China have improved overstate the extent and effectiveness of reforms, a labor group says.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank funded in part by labor organizations, on Thursday said that a Fair Labor Association (FLA) report issued in August exaggerates the impact of changes made to improve working conditions at Foxconn facilities.

Following a series of labor problems at electronics makers in China over the past few years, Apple in February asked the FLA to investigate its supplier, Foxconn. In March, Apple and Foxconn committed to workplace changes recommended by the FLA.

[ For more background, read Apple Invites Labor Inspectors To Foxconn, Other Suppliers. ]

Five months later, the FLA said it was satisfied that Apple had taken the necessary steps to hold Foxconn accountable and that Foxconn was making progress toward fulfilling its promises.

The EPI however asserts that "the FLA's rosy view of developments in Apple's supply chain is unfounded." The organization says that "the FLA gives Foxconn credit for reforms that are either incomplete or purely symbolic." It says that progress made over the summer in curbing excessive overtime and coerced labor has not been sustained into the busier fall manufacturing season. And it says that commitments made to award back pay to underpaid workers have not been met.

Apple, Foxconn and the FLA did not respond to requests for comment.

Isaac Shapiro, research associate at the EPI, in a phone interview gave credit to the FLA for wanting to promote serious and comprehensive reforms, but acknowledged concerns that FLA isn't sufficiently independent from the companies it assesses. Reports about working conditions at Foxconn facilities from other organizations like China Labor Watch and Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), he observed, have been more critical.

"The most fundamental reforms really have to do with hours and pay," said Shapiro, insisting that Apple and Foxconn have not lived up to their commitments to pay workers retroactively for the years they were underpaid.

In March, the FLA said it had "secured agreement from Foxconn and Apple to retroactively pay any worker due unpaid overtime." FLA also said the two companies have agreed to develop a pay package for workers that protects them from losing income despite a reduction in overtime.

"Wherever Apple products are made, workers should be paid appropriately," said Shapiro.

With Foxconn reportedly looking at opening manufacturing facilities in the U.S., the electronics maker may have to embrace workplace reforms sooner rather than later. Shapiro observed that Foxconn now operates a manufacturing facility in Brazil, which has stronger labor protections than China. As a consequence, he said, the workers in Brazil are treated better. If Foxconn does open a manufacturing facility in the U.S., he expects the situation will be similar.

"It's harder to sweep gross violations of workers rights under the rug in the U.S.," he said.