Apple Launches Investigations Into Supplier Conduct, Work Environments

Apple recently took a PR hammering after the New York Times published a report claiming that labor conditions at the company's Chinese partner Foxconn continued to be poor--and that Apple knew about it and chose to do nothing. CEO Tim Cook blasted the allegations at the time, but has followed up nonetheless. Apple announced today that the Fair Labor Association will conduct "special, voluntary audits" of Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Unlike the suicides of 2009-2010, the recent accusations of poor monitoring relate to aluminum dust explosions at two Foxconn factories in May and December of 2011. Such risks are a known manufacturing hazard, and are seen as something which Apple, a company known for exercising obsessive control over every aspect of product development, should have seen and recognized before disasters occurred. Cook's rapid response to the issue may be driven by his own relationship with the manufacturers in question -- as the former Chief Operating Officer (COO), he would've been personally responsible for partner selection and manufacturing evaluation in a way that Steve Jobs, as CEO, wasn't.

“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,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “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.”

The first audits are focused on Foxconn, but Apple has pledged to follow up with similar audits at Pegatron and Quanta.

Apple's greatest problem are charts like the above, which show the number of suppliers in compliance with the company's guidelines on specific practices. Some areas, like "Antidiscrimination," show significant year-to-year improvement, while "Working hours" compliance is consistently low (Apple mandates a maximum 60-hour work week with one day off in every seven -- violations mean that companies are exceeding this level). Company executives have even remarked on Chinese worker "flexibility" as a reason why they can't afford to build products in the US; making it difficult to believe the company is entirely committed to ending some of these practices. Similarly, 109 Apple suppliers fail to pay overtime as mandated.

Apple's 2012 Progress Report, released before the New York Times story in late January, detail a number of noteworthy improvements in recent years -- protection for juvenile workers and freedom of association have both increased. Of the two facilities found to be employing "involuntary labor," the company terminated its relationship with one and is "correcting the practice" of the other. Much of the debate is focused on whether Apple, with its highly visible production and perceived commitment to quality, should be held to a higher standard. By tapping the FLA to perform an independent audit, Cook clearly hopes to send the message that Apple cares about the workers in its entire supply chain and is willing to take tough action to ensure its standards are upheld.