How Apple, Foxconn, and others can address labor abuses in overseas factories
Why do we keep hearing about labor abuses in overseas factories like those of Apple-supplier Foxconn? Auditing and inspections are inadequate to solve the problem. Requiring companies to examine and publicly report on risks along their supply chains can help eliminate violations.
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On the positive side, some companies – Nike among them, in fact – have moved away from an over-reliance on auditing. A few companies have also begun to review their purchasing practices and how they affect labor conditions. Gap, Inc. has been a forerunner in this area, establishing an internal process to address, for example, how late changes to production orders can lead to excessive overtime in factories or unauthorized subcontracting.Skip to next paragraph
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A small number of companies, such as H&M, have put resources into training workers on labor rights, on the idea that informed and empowered workers are the most effective barrier to labor rights abuses.
Now Apple and its supplier, Foxconn, have promised to take remedial measures at three factories in China. This was in response to a report released in late March by the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which Apple had asked to investigate allegations of labor abuses in Foxconn factories. The report detailed overtime, health and safety, and other violations, as well as problems with worker representation systems.
FLA described its investigation as “much more than an audit,” and an “in-depth, top-down and bottom-up examination of the entire operation.” Some labor rights activists have taken issue with the investigation and Apple’s promises, pointing out that the company has made similar pledges after past exposés.
And still, periodic auditing of factories remains the norm for many multinational companies. It is easier to hire auditors than to re-examine – much less reform – a business model based on creating and feeding consumer demand for inexpensive goods produced quickly.
Recent developments may signal change. New legislation in California requires large retail and manufacturing companies with a certain amount of business in that state to report publicly on measures they’ve taken to keep human rights violations such as forced labor and human trafficking out of their supply chains. A proposed federal-level version of that law is before the House.
The new law and the proposed legislation, which are focused on egregious human rights abuses, would not necessarily expose all of the problems revealed in the Apple case. And some companies (including Apple, though only relatively recently) already do this reporting voluntarily. But (mandatory) transparency for companies’ supply chain practices should be welcomed for several reasons.
In requiring companies to examine and publicly report on risks along their supply chains, such laws will remove any excuse for not knowing who one’s suppliers are and what they are doing. They might encourage buyer companies to form longer-term, closer relationships with their suppliers – an important factor in addressing persistent labor rights abuses.
They will send a message to buyer and supplier companies alike that what goes on in supply chains will be open to systematic, public scrutiny. This aspect has the added value of leveling the playing field and applying the same compliance standards to all.
And as transparency around supply chains rises, it should facilitate open and honest assessment of the human rights consequences of our current consumption and production models. It’s about time.
Elizabeth Umlas is a human rights researcher based in Geneva.