Apple to Let Inspectors into Foxconn Factories in China

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Thomas Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Apple continues to try and salvage its good name in the aftermath of a damning New York Times story that listed numerous labor abuses at its factories throughout China. Last month the company released a list of its more than 150 suppliers and today it announced that it’s letting inspectors from the Fair Labor Association (FLA) into the factories that have received the most attention from the media and labor groups — the massive Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu.

According to a statement from Apple, the FLA inspectors will interview thousands of Foxconn employees, inspect manufacturing areas and living quarters, and have access to internal documents. While Apple previously conducted internal audits of the Foxconn factories, this is the first time the company will allow a third party to inspect its facilities.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook was reportedly incensed by the Times piece, sending a long internal letter to company employees defending Apple’s labor practices. Cook, who took over the company when Steve Jobs retired to focus on his fight with cancer, said in Apple’s statement:

We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers. The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.

So, will this be enough to satisfy critics, like the ones who petitioned Apple for an “ethical” iPhone last week?

It’s hard to tell. First, remember that this is simply an audit of Apple’s final assembly suppliers, including Foxconn, Quanta and Pegatron. Apple still has more than 100 other suppliers that it won’t let the press investigate.

It’s also worth mentioning that an FLA inspection won’t be enough for the most vocal Apple detractors. The nonprofit organization has been accused by liberal labor organizations, most notably the Worker Rights Consortium, of having too many corporate interests represented on its board and giving companies too much time to prepare for scheduled inspections at handpicked facilities. Nike, no stranger to crticism over labor abuses, is one of the largest members of the FLA.

Still, Apple’s move is a sign that the consumer electronics industry can no longer ignore this issue. The public furor surrounding labor abuses has moved on from the garment industry and is now squarely focused on companies like Apple.

The forces of globalization and insatiable consumer demand are too strong to be affected by a few inspections, but, for the moment, it seems the public is starting to pay attention.

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