Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Apple has joined the Fair Labor Association: What does it mean?

By Ellen Rosskam  and  Peter L. Schnall

We thought that the interested reader might want to know a bit more about the Fair Labor Association (FLA) which has been retained by Apple Corporation to evaluate whether Apple’s suppliers are adhering to Apple’s standards for the proper treatment of their workforce. This standard is outlined in the Apple Supplier Responsibility Progress Report (Apple_SR_2012_Progress_Report)  We quote from the report … “We require that our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made”. Unfortunately, as many readers are certainly aware questions have been raised about several companies that supply Apple as to whether or not they are in violation of these policies. Among the issues raised are excessive overtime (more than 60 hours of work per week), crowded dormitories, military like working conditions, lack of breaks, mental harassment, etc. (the list goes on and the reader should refer to earlier blogs posted here). Foxconn itself acknowledges turnover rates in excess of 75% per year (Walmart which is considered a terrible U.S. company to work for has a turnover rate of 50 to 60%). High turnover rates are considered a good indicator of the stressfulness of a company to work for.

Apple has responded to the barrage of news and criticisms about Foxconn ( a major Chinese supplier of Ipads and Iphones) by releasing for the first time a list of its official suppliers. More importantly, on January 13, 2012, Apple joined The Fair Labor Association (FLA) as a Participating Company (PC) - the first technology company to join the FLA. The FLA works to end sweatshop working conditions around the world. As a PC, Apple commits to bringing their entire supply chain into the FLA program. This means FLA will visit, inspect and evaluate companies like Foxconn as to their adhearance to Apple and FLA standards.

FLA’s Goals

The FLA promotes core international labor standards. Details of the FLA’s Code of Conduct based on core international labor standards are provided below.[1] 
The Fair Labor Association is a non profit organization that combines the efforts of socially responsible companies, civil society organizations and colleges and universities to protect workers’ rights and improve working conditions worldwide by promoting adherence to international labor standards. The FLA conducts independent monitoring and verification to ensure that the FLA’s Workplace Standards are upheld where FLA company products are produced. Through public reporting, the FLA provides consumers with credible information to make responsible buying decisions. FLA Participating Companies agree to uphold the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct throughout their supply chains and commit to the FLA’s Principles of Fair Labor and Responsible Sourcing...Like all new affiliates, Apple will align its compliance program with FLA obligations within the next two years.[2]

Well yes, but as they say the devil is in the details. It seems fair to ask if FLA is truly an independent organization able to carry out the mandate outlined above. The problem is that the monies for the extensive audits, salaries of staff, etc. required by FLA to conduct their evaluations all come from the companies that are members of the FLA. This means Apple is paying for its own audit. Obviously, this is a less than optimal situation.

The FLA Workplace Code of Conduct

The FLA Workplace Code of Conduct defines labor standards that aim to achieve decent and humane working conditions. The Code’s standards are based on International Labor Organization standards and internationally accepted good labor practices. These include practices generally considered for corporations that want to be recognized as “socially responsible.” PCs are expected to comply with the relevant laws and regulations of the country in which workers are employed and to implement the FLA Workplace Code in their applicable facilities. The FLA accredits independent third-party monitors and engages them to conduct un-announced audits annually of a group of randomly selected factories that supply products to FLA-affiliated brands and universities.

What is wrong with FLA’s Code of Conduct

These standards are good as far as they go but they are 25 years out of date.  A great of research has been undertaken examining not just the role of the physical environment in causing ill health but also the psychosocial work environment (e.g., job strain, ERI, social isolation, injustice, lack of mobility, etc.). Psycho-social work hazards are not even mentioned in any international labor standards related to occupational health and safety nor are they part of the FLA’s evaluation of the workplace.[3]  This is not surprising. Science evolves faster than the international standard setting process, which is long and arduous - even updating international labor standards can takes years. Needless to say, the FLA’s Code of Conduct also does not address psycho-social work hazards. This is why the director of the FLA – Auret Van Heerden could visit Foxconn, look at the well lit and clean factory floors and declare that “facilities are first-class” and “Foxconn is really not a sweatshop”. Yes it is first class and not a sweat shop compared to other Chinese companies but this does not make it a healthy place to work.

Given the FLA’s flexibility it would be good if its Code were revised to address psycho-social stressors. Implementing the FLA’s Code is no easy undertaking in countries where labor laws are weak and not enforced, such as in China, or where there are no protective labor laws at all.

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