Can Apple make a more ethical iPhone?

In the world of global manufacturing, it seems that multinational corporations are destined to take their turn in the sweatshop spotlight. Apple’s turn, merely the latest, has taken an unusual twist.

Chief executive Tim Cook, on a trip to China this past week, visited a Foxconn factory and released photos of grinning workers on the iPhone production line. Cook’s trip came after months of investigations, centered on Foxconn, of Apple’s alleged sweatshop conditions. As the story gained momentum — in part because of a theatrical performance by a man named Mike Daisey, who has since apologized for fabricating much of his narrative — Apple hired a third-party monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), to audit working conditions at its factories. The FLA issued a report Thursday citing widespread overtime abuses and subsistence pay at Foxconn, and the manufacturer and Apple pledged to do better.

Apple and Foxconn appear to be on the right track. But independent monitoring and critical reports on factory standards have failed to make real change before. It is a promise to do better by an organization that isn’t really beholden to anyone. Monitoring, which may offer wary consumers a balm, used to be the best that international manufacturers had. That is no longer the case, and Apple — long a leader in the tech world — now has both an opportunity and a responsibility to prove itself a leader in the world of ethical working conditions. The company need only look as far as the garment industry for an example.

Global manufacturing — from computers and electronic devices to cars and garments — has been a target of anti-sweatshop activists for years. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford’s teary apology after activists discovered Honduran sweatshops making her line of clothing for Wal-Marthelped spearhead the anti-sweatshop movement. Lawsuits against the Gap, Levi Strauss, Target, J.C. Penney and other retailers also helped raise awareness. In the mid- to late ’90s, protests erupted on college campuses, and groups such as No Sweat Apparel and Behind the Label were born.

The industry’s response was for the brands to begin monitoring their own factories. Beyond the obvious conflict of interest that arises when a corporation polices itself, there are other issues at play. Factories often have contracts with many companies, all of which now have their own codes of conduct — some more enforced than others. Take overtime, for example. If the Gap allows up to 20 hours a week of overtime, but the local government allows only 10 — as was the case several years ago in Shenzhen, China — whose mandate should be followed? If the local minimum age for workers is 15, but one brand requires workers to be 16 and another brand 18, whose law prevails?

And companies soon realized that they could not effectively monitor their factories alone. Enter the third-party auditors, including Apple’s new partner, the FLA. I’ve seen many auditors, including Social Accountability International and Verite, do very good work, even in China. But, hypothetically speaking, if a factory makes garments for the Gap and the Gap contracts with Verite, and that same factory also makes garments for Eileen Fisher and Eileen Fisher contracts with Social Accountability International, the factory will be ensnared in a constant tug of war among these various international players.

What we have is an industry where factories are monitored incessantly; where the quality and efficacy of monitoring varies wildly; where local laws, if they exist, are often ignored in favor of international buyers; and where factories pay enormous sums to a variety of monitoring groups just to be in the international game.

Monitoring, when done effectively, takes a lot of time, from two days to a week. It’s not simply a matter of walking around a factory checking ventilation systems, light bulbs and fire exits; it’s painstakingly comparing export records with buyers’ contracts and calendars (to make sure that work is not happening on a Sunday, say) and sometimes even weather reports. If multiple groups are auditing a factory annually, it can spend weeks out of each season just working with them. One factory I visited in China had an entire department devoted solely to working with the many monitors who came through.

On top of that, third-party monitoring is very expensive. The International Labor Organization puts the cost at $1,500 to $3,000 per audit, and many factories are audited five or six times in one month, though the frequency varies greatly.

Underage employees are often weeded out by auditors simply walking around attempting to spot young-looking workers — most often girls — or thumbing through employee records. I interviewed dozens of workers in the course of writing a book about the global manufacturing industry, and every one told me that she would help hide underage co-workers if need be, because the families of these girls must be in dire straits to send their daughters to work.

There is, though, a better way. Cambodia has proved it. In the late 1990s, the country negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration that linked good factory conditions to increased access to the U.S. market. Cambodia brought in the International Labor Organization to oversee factory monitoring and create unions, among other things, and in less than a decade, garments became the country’s primary export — more than 95 percent of all goods exported, in fact. Eventually, the ILO turned over administration of the program to local authorities. And while there were factories that fell out of compliance, and mistakes were made, by and large it was a successful experiment.

Today, federal law guarantees the garment workers of Cambodia breast-feeding breaks, 43 paid vacation days annually, medical clinics on site and 90-day paid maternity leave, among other things. The program, called Better Factories Cambodia, has become a model for many other countries.

That program, now called Better Work, is used in Haiti, Lesotho, Jordan, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Vietnam. It is a partnership among the ILO, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, international brands, local factories, local governments and nongovernmental organizations. It costs $7 million to $10 million over the course of five years to establish the program — though in a country the size of China, it would be much more. Half the money so far has come from development grants, and the other half from fees shared by factories, international buyers, unions and local governments. While it might sound like a lot of money, it is far more economical than the ad hoc system of third-party monitoring. The ILO estimates that Better Work will ultimately cost just $2,000 per factory annually.

The program also streamlines many of the economic, cultural and political issues surrounding international brands and third-party auditors working in foreign arenas. “Factories don’t live in isolation,” one ILO official told me several years ago. “They live in the context of laws and the country. Say your factory is great, but outside the factory there’s no rule of law. It creates fear in the community. All of us are realizing we have to have a way to move forward at the enterprise level, but it’s got to be broader than that. You’ve got to build the nations’ ability to run good labor standards and industrial relations.”

Apple, admittedly, is in a tight spot. China does not allow formal labor unions (apart from the government’s own union), and labor laws are generally set by prefecture rather than at the federal level. Allowable overtime, for example, might differ from one area to another. To get around this, one factory I visited in China had created its own worker-led union to advocate for workers with management.

The reality is that Apple has the influence, economically and otherwise, to flex a little muscle. The company has long been visionary when it comes to technology that enhances the lives of privileged Westerners. Now let’s see if it can take on the moral and ethical challenge of improving the lives of its overseas workers.

outlook@washpost.com

Rachel Louise Snyder is the author of“Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” and an assistant professor of creative writing at American University.

 
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