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.