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Apple factory inspectors put positive spin on Foxconn conditions, but watchdogs are skeptical

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The president of the Fair Labor Association offers preliminary remarks on the exemplary state of the factories of Foxconn, in comparison with other factories in the world, though the actual inspections have not been carried out and the report will not be issued until March.

Foxconn worker
Foxconn worker

Auret van Heerden, the president of the Fair Labor Association (or FLA) has issued a statement today ahead of the organization's expected final report on the working conditions at Apple's top eight suppliers, most notably Foxconn. van Heerden's remarks pertain to Foxconn following a visit of several days' to the factory. Preliminarily, van Heerden says, the factories are "first-class."

In January, Apple voluntarily joined the FLA, an independent, non-profit organization which conducts random checks of factories and then issues reports on the working conditions found there, and then a few days ago announced it had requested a voluntary inspection of the factories. They are, by their own description, "dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions worldwide." Apple, of course, has come under increasing scrutiny for its manufacturing and assembly processes, mostly in China. Foxconn — a massive factory and one of Apple's largest suppliers — has gotten a lot of attention in the wake of the ongoing incidents of suicides of its workers.

Apple's joining of the FLA didn't arrive without criticism, and Wired reported that in fact, the FLA is a somewhat controversial organization. A representative of, an advocacy group, called the Fair Labor Association a "public relations mouthpiece," and they have been criticized by for having several board members who are also executives at some of the companies which the FLA audits, such as Nike and Adidas. The FLA's inspections are based on the guidelines set out by the International Labor Organization, which is part of the United Nations. The ILO's guidelines broadly prohibit child labor, have rules governing overtime hours, and gives compensation guidelines as well.

Today's report, in fact, is interesting in the context of the criticisms of the association. While the FLA says it has not come to any conclusions, nor even finished its audit of the factories (and in fact, the Reuters article states that they have "just begun"), its president does seem to be fairly certain that the Foxconn factory is "way above the average of the norm," and even goes so far to call the factory floor "tranquil." Possibly the most disturbing of the very short remarks is van Heerden's supposition that Foxconn's recent suicides and worker problems may have been caused by "monotony" or "boredom," adding that the workers, who are usually quite young, are "taken from a rural into an industrial lifestyle, often quite an intense one, and that's quite a shock" to them. While the FLA president is dismissive of the question as to whether its report would be superficially positive, making early remarks such as these are not likely to quell criticisms any faster, even if he is, in fact, an authority on the working conditions in such factories.

The FLA's plan is to send 30 of its representatives to two different Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, each with about 100,000 workers. The FLA staff will interview 35,000 Foxconn employees, asking them a range of questions which will be answered anonymously. An interim report is expected in March, with a final report, which will suggest improvements and changes, coming later. In the meantime, Auret van Heerden doesn't seem to be doing the FLA or Apple any favors. Apple, for its part, has promised monthly reports on the working conditions of its suppliers, signaling that it takes the issue very seriously.