Apple Joins Fair Labor Association: Will other IT companies follow suit?
The Fair Labor Association(FLA) last January 13, 2012 announced that Apple will become a Participating Company(PC) of the FLA. Being a PC of the FLA, Apple needs to follow the Workplace Code of Conduct. This means Apple, to remain as a PC, must implement the provisions under the Code of Conduct (CoC), including provision of a safe working environment, respect for the freedom of association, proper work hours and non-employment of child labor, among others. Apple, as a signatory, must ensure the implementation of the the CoC throughout its supply chain. FLA on the other hand is allowed by Apple to conduct social audit on its supply chain.
Apple in particular, and the whole Information Technology (IT) sector in general, in the past years, have been dogged by pressure from wide array of groups: labor unions and workers groups, environmental organizations, consumer movements and many more, to improve their current questionable labor and environmental practices across their supply chains. Foxconn, a major supplier of big IT brands, have been documented and reported in the past years to have deplorable working environments, forcing a spate of workers suicides in Foxconn China last 2010. The hiring of student intern by the same supplier has been documented by the press. Students intern in China working for companies, for example have very limited rights and when a student-worker suffer a work-related injury, the Local Inspection Bureau no longer have jurisdiction over the case, which is the norm for other workers*.
In Foxconn India, workers have to walk 500m just to get drinking water and 850 workers are forced to share 3 bathrooms**. The list is long and despite attention by many pressure groups, it continues to grow longer. Foxconn by no means, have monopoly of labor and environmental abuses. A supplier of green technology in China was documented to be dumping toxic wastes in the river behind their production plant and across various supply chains, violations of labour standards are common.
As an answer to increasing pressure to address worsening problems across global supply chains, big brands have resorted to adopting Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as a framework in confronting the issues being raised. Many brands have embraced third-party CoC, similar to what FLA Workplace Code of Conduct have, while some (e.g. Starbucks)*** just created their own and stamp their products as sweat-free.
Critics of CSR and CoC argue the “global supply chain is built to systematically exploit the vulnerability of labour and the environments of developing countries to drive profit forward” and that “the inbuilt nature of the supply chain makes it impossible to reform it by adopting tricky CoC or by implementing deceptive CSR.”**** MakeITFair raises the the weak representation of unions in the board of FLA. They also mention the need of FLA to independently assess 5% of each members supply base which “in the past, FLA has had trouble meeting these independent assessment requirements due to capability limitations.”*****
During social audits, auditors visit plants, document their observation, directly talk to workers and draft recommendations as to whether the company should receive a passing mark. Keen observers of the process direct us to social audit weak points: 1) revelation by workers who are interviewed inside the workplace are doubtful to be fully correct due to fear of reprisal by management if “unfavorable” comments are made against the company; 2) visits by auditors are never surprise drop by and allow management to prepare, including quick improvements in health and safety provisions; 3) reports by social auditors can be stodgy, technical, have limited reach and may not directly influence buying patterns of consumers; 4) who are entitled to audit the auditors.
The inherent weakness of CSR and CoC can be leveraged by big brands to serve as window dressing to obfuscate exploitation of labor and environment across their supply chains. Expect more IT brands to follow Apple. On the other hand, labor, green and consumer activists need to continue to develop strategies and tactics which outpace and outwit the efforts of brands to sweep under the rug their wrongdoings. The battle continues.
* Liang Shumei, “Cheap Labour In Essence, Students In Name: Vocation School Interns In China,” Asian Labour Update 78, (January-March 2011): 23.
** Surendra Pratap, Venkatachandrika Radhakrishnan, Madhumitta Dutta, “Foxconn Workers Speak: We Are Treated Worse Than Machines,” 2011.
**** Fahmi Panimbang, Global Supply Chains and Their Impact on the Labour Movement in Asia, Asian Labour Update 78, (January-March 2011): 13-14.
***** MakeITFair, Will Apple turn over a new leaf when it joins the Fair Labor Association? January 17, 2011.