Last week, the Fair Labor Association released a report on its “independent investigation” of Apple supplier Foxconn, which employs 1.2 million workers and is China’s largest private employer and single exporter. I discussed the FLA report, and labor rights in the U.S. and China, trade, jobs and currency with C. Fred Bergsten, Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show this morning.
There are serious questions about the “independence” of the FLA report, which was commissioned by Apple to conduct the investigation; Apple is a major contributor to FLA’s activities. Furthermore, although the report raised important issues such as excessive and unpaid overtime and health and safety concerns, it failed to address others, such as Foxconn’s harsh management practices and public humiliation of employees (well documented by groups such as the Hong Kong based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior), Foxconn’s systematic abuse of forced interns, and China’s refusal to permit free, fair and independent trade union elections (although the report does acknowledge that company officials dominate local unions in Foxconn plants and it calls for open, democratic elections of union officials, it fails to address the fact that all unions in China must belong to the All China Confederation of Trade Unions, which is controlled by the government). Without the protections afforded by free, independent trade unions, it is unlikely that Apple or Foxconn will ever make good on the promised improvements in wages and working conditions in these factories.
Problems with excessive overtime, widespread safety problems and the absence of worker safety and health programs have been well known at Foxconn since 2006. Apple publicly promised at that time that it would correct these problems. The new FLA reports promise that excessive overtime will be eliminated by July 2013, 15 months from now. Apple could end this problem in a matter of weeks, not months or years, simply by raising the prices it pays for Foxconn’s products and then directing Foxconn to raise wages and hire more workers. The solutions are obvious. Engrained behaviors, however, are hard to change.
–The author thanks Ross Eisenbrey and Scott Nova for helpful comments.