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Apple, Foxconn To Improve Factory Conditions


Apple has been under scrutiny for working conditions in factories in China, factories that make its iPhones and iPads. And it responded by enlisting a workers' rights group. Now, the Fair Labor Association has released its audit of Apple's largest supplier, Foxconn. It found more than 50 violations of both its code of conduct and Chinese labor laws, at three Foxconn factories. NPR's Steve Henn reports.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Workers at Foxconn plants making Apple products are routinely asked to work more than 60 hours a week. During peak production, the average worker at these plants was putting in what the Fair Labor Association's president, Auret Van Heerden, called excessive amounts overtime. And this audit is just the beginning.

AURET VAN HEERDEN: Apple has asked us to look at all of their key contract manufacturers. And so this is going to be an ongoing process that will last the rest of the year.

HENN: The Fair Labor Association also found thousands of workers who were not being paid in full for overtime they worked. Its auditors uncovered numerous health and safety violations, and reported that unions at Foxconn don't typically represent workers' interests but instead, are dominated by management.

KELLIE MCELHANEY: I'd say that it was more or less what I expected to see.

HENN: Kellie McElhaney is director of the Center for Responsible Business at U.C., Berkeley.

MCELHANEY: I think the timing, with Tim Cook's trip over in China, is interesting.

HENN: McElhaney says clearly, Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook, has made this issue a priority.

MCELHANEY: But the report itself didn't really release anything that was surprising, I think, to anybody who's been following this story.

HENN: Apple, which asked for the Fair Labor Association to come to China to do this audit, released a statement saying the company appreciated the work the FLA was doing, and it was committed to fixing the issues the group identified. The company said it's been working for years to make, quote, "Apple's supply chain a model for the industry."

SCOTT NOVA: I certainly hope this time, Apple really means it because certainly, Apple is a company that has the resources to bring about an enormous transformation of working conditions in its supply chain, and establish a model for the industry. The question is, will they really do it?

HENN: Scott Nova is executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. He says Apple has been pledging to stop excessive overtime problems at Foxconn for at least the past six years.

NOVA: The question, of course, is not whether there are abuses at Foxconn - we know there are. The question is not whether Foxconn and Apple will promise to fix them – we know that they will. The question is whether anything will really change.

HENN: For its part, Foxconn pledged to increase wages. It also promised to eliminate illegal overtime at plants making Apple products, by the summer of 2013.

VAN HEERDEN: It's a major challenge.

HENN: Auret Van Heerden, from the Fair Labor Association

VAN HEERDEN: They will have to hire tens of thousands of new workers. They need to build dormitory rooms for them, add the cafeteria and workspace for them. So certainly, this is a project which will take, I think, the better part of a year or - to implement.

HENN: The Fair Labor Association interviewed more than 35,000 workers at Foxconn plants. And close to two-thirds of them said their salary wasn't sufficient to meet their basic needs. Despite the long hours they already worked, roughly a third of these workers actually wanted to work more overtime. Scott Nova.

NOVA: And given the enormous resources at Apple's disposal, and the mountain of cash that the company is sitting on, there is simply no excuse for any worker making Apple products to go one more day without being paid a genuine living wage.

DARA O’ROURKE: This is something where Apple is really playing catch-up.

HENN: Dara O'Rourke is a professor at U.C. Berkeley, and co-founder of GoodGuide.com. It's a Web site which rates products and their supply chains. He says Nike, Adidas and Rebook have all taken on these issues in their supply chains already. And they did it more than a decade ago.

O’ROURKE: What Apple really needs to do is move from documenting these symptoms of wages and hours and health and safety; to looking at the root causes of their problems, which, quite frankly, go all the way back to Cupertino - right to their designers; to the people running their supply chain.

HENN: He says Apple needs to begin to think different about its own manufacturing process.

O’ROURKE: The company changing their designs at the last second; the company demanding really fast turnaround; the company pushing down on pricing and delivery times.

HENN: O'Rourke believes these kinds of demands from Apple's headquarters in Cupertino help create the conditions at Foxconn that the Fair Labor Association and others have documented. He says to address them, Apple needs to rethink its manufacturing process, and innovate from the top down.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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