Apple Turns to the Larry King of Sweatshop Scandals
By Josh Eidelson
In These Times
February 27, 2012
Apple's chosen monitor has long been criticized by anti-
Wracked by weeks of bad press over the conditions under
which its products are made, this month Apple called in the
Fair Labor Association. "We believe that workers everywhere
have the right to a safe and fair work environment," said
Apple CEO Tim Cook in a February 13 release, "which is why
we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance
of our largest suppliers."
Cook promised inspections "unprecedented in the electronics
industry, both in size and scope." Two days later, FLA
President Auren van Heerden told Reuters that so far he had
found the FoxConn facilities-where workers had recently
threatened mass suicide -"first class; the physical
conditions are way, way above average of the norm."
Perhaps this should not have been a surprise. Corporations
turn to the FLA during scandals for the same reasons
celebrities turn to Larry King: it's high- profile, it's
establishment-approved, and it won't press as hard as the
A history of compliance
The FLA was formed in 1999 with funding and backing from the
Clinton administration, following years of prominent anti-
sweatshop activism in the United States. It came three years
after Kathy Lee Gifford's well- televised tears over alleged
abuses in factories producing her clothing label. The FLA's
Apple investigation represents its first foray into the tech
industry. From the beginning, the FLA has described its
approach as about bringing stakeholders into the process.
Along with universities and nonprofits, several members of
its board are apparel corporations. Companies play a major
role in investigating themselves, and evaluating each
An FLA spokesperson declined to comment. But in an
interview with the New York Times, its Executive Director
Jorge Perez- Lopez said the organization has successfully
reduced child labor in China and Latin America and
discrimination against pregnant workers in Latin America.
Van Heerden defended the FLA system to Reuters as "very
tough. It involves unannounced visits, complete access,
Charles Kernaghan, whose meetings with Honduran children
making Gifford-branded clothing helped make their conditions
an international story, takes a different view. "The FLA
has maybe 10% credibility," says Kernaghan, who directs the
Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. "We've never
seen anything from them that we would consider to be more
than 50% or 30% accurate."
Kernaghan traces the impetus for the FLA to the mid-90's,
when his organization (then called the National Labor
Committee), after a lengthy stuggle, convinced a Vice-
President of Gap to allow a Jesuit-led team of independent
monitors into a factory in El Salvador. "You had people
that were not corruptible," says Kernaghan, "that were not
in the pocket of the companies, and they began to monitor
the factories, and they found every single violation we had
found." Kernaghan says management has told him that after
Gap let the Jesuits in, all of its competitors began calling
and saying, "Are you out of your mind?"
Kernaghan says that victory created a market for less
aggressive alternatives that corporations could bring in
instead. "They got dollar bills in their eyes.." says
Kernaghan. "It was one phony group after another." He
cites the Harvest Ridge factory in Bangladesh, where the
IGLHR filmed a 11 year-old worker worker describing 14-hour
days working for 6.5 cents an hour without being allowed to
sit down. "If she fell behind her production goal, the
manager would slap her very hard." When Kernaghan testified
about these abuses in Congress, management cited the FLA's
finding that the factory was fully cimpliant.
Having "realized that the corporations and the FLA had
hijacked monitoring," Kernaghan says the IGLHR has shifted
its demands to disclosure of factory locations and federal
legislation. "You had to get around the FLA, because
The FLA's most vocal critic has been United Students Against
Sweatshops, whose activism also helped spark the FLA's
creation. USAS supported the formation of an alternative
organization, the Workers Rights Consortium, whose board is
composed of student activists, university administrators,
and representatives of labor and nonprofits.
The FLA's "purpose from the beginning, from our view, was to
serve primarily as a cover-up for corporations and a smoke
screen." says Yale Law student Mary Yanik, a member of USAS'
Coordinating Committee and of the WRC's Board. "It's never
been a strong worker advocate, and it's been very
detrimental to the anti-sweatshop movement." (Yanik made
clear she was not speaking on behalf of the WRC)
USAS has long criticized the FLA on several counts:
Companies' suppliers are monitored by contracted
investigators who the FLA hires with funds from
participating companies. These firms are supplemented by
management staff monitoring their own factories. The FLA's
super-majority requirement gives its corporate members more
than enough votes to block any action proposed by the
universities or non-profits on its board. Not disclosing the
specific factories that were inspected makes it harder for
current or former workers, activists, or other monitors to
contradict the FLA's findings. Following UNITE's (full
disclosure: a predecessor union to my former employer UNITE
HERE) 2003 resignation in protest, there are no unions on
the FLA's board. Conducting interviews on company property
makes it less likely workers will voice criticisms.
"If you're speaking to the workers when the manager at over
there, and the workers see you to be really buddy- buddy
with their supervisors, it's unlikely the workers are going
to trust you," says Yanik. And companies that do wrong
often get away with it.
In 2008, USAS slammed the FLA for welcoming underwear-
manufacturer Hanes on board as its latest "Corporate
Member." The year before, activists had alleged retaliation
when Hanes, which directly employs factory workers, fired
over 30 from a Dominican Republic factory where workers were
organizing. USAS charged that the FLA granted Hanes its new
status, which came with donations to the FLA, without
concessions on that campaign, or consultations with any of
the workers or activists involved.
In recent years, some universities that affiliated with the
FLA for accreditation of their apparel, including the
University of Miami and Santa Clara University, have left
'Fox guarding the henhouse' at FoxConn?
The FLA's handling of FoxConn Technology Group has so far
done little to assuage critics' concerns. FoxConn employs
over a million factory workers producing products for
companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Apple. FoxConn drew
international attention in 2010, after dozens of employees
committed suicide. That attention returned when workers
threatened additional suicides this year. The 2010 suicides
drew promises of reform-and the installation of nets.
This month FLA President Van Heerden told Reuters he was
surprised by "how tranquil it is compared with a garment
factory. So the problems are not the intensity and burnout
and pressure-cooker environment you have in a garment
factory.It's more a function of monotony, of boredom, of
But as Michelle Chen, R.M. Arrieta, and Mike Elk have
reported for In These Times, workers and other monitors have
told a very different story.
In a May 2011 report, Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars
Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) documented extreme
overtime, poverty wages, wage theft, and "military
"Some of my roommates weep in the dormitory," Foxconn worker
Chen Liming told SACOM. "I want to cry as well but my tears
have not come out." A January New York Times article
described what happened when Apple decided the soon-to-be-
released iPhone 5 needed different screens: "A foreman
immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company's
dormitories.Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of
tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started
a 12-hour shift." (As I've reported for In These Times,
working for Apple in its U.S. retail stores is no workers'
"I'm amazed that the FLA would give one of the most
notoriously abusive factories in the world a clean bill of
health-based, it appears, on nothing more than a guided tour
provided by the owner," WRC Executive Director Scott Nova
told the New York Times February 16. "If the FLA wants to
convince people that it can somehow conduct an impartial
investigation of Apple, despite being funded by Apple, this
is not a good way to start."
Five days later, the FLA issued an updated statement saying
that "This thorough investigation continues to progress in
the same way as each of the FLA's other assessments and
investigations have - fairly, thoughly and independently."
The statement said that the investigation would include both
on-site and off-site interviews.
USAS International Campaigns Coordinator Teresa Cheng says
using offsite interviews is "an aberration for the FLA," and
that she has "no doubt that their decision to even do off-
site interviews would be because of public pressure and
critique." But she says such interviews are unlikely to
result in a more critical report. In some cases, charges
Cheng, the FLA has "contracted staff who've made conclusions
indicting companies, and implicating companies in conduct as
extreme as giving death threats to union leaders.and the FLA
has even overridden the conclusions of its own
The FLA's limits as a force for "Fair Labor" aren't just
about low standards-they're about workers' power to judge
their own labor conditions. This is an issue that the anti-
sweatshop movement long wrestled with, and it's why USAS
avoids calling for boycotts without the support of a
factory's own workers.
While the FLA may claim credit for publicizing particularly
egregious conditions, Yanik says its can't change the
industry because it doesn't meaningfully support workers'
right to organize. She cites the case of the Jerzees de
Honduras factory. "The FLA discouraged the workers that were
trying to form a union from lodging a complaint." After
workers were fired for organizing, charges Yanik, FLA
monitors "said everything was fine.a few months later the
FLA had to go back and retract its entire report."
"The only way to really address these problems is to empower
workers." says Yanik. "Workers in these factories are
always going to be the best enforcers. The FLA has never
taken that view."
"If workers have rights, and they can exercise those
rights," says Kernaghan, " they will be in...a hundred
thousand times better position than to have the FLA fly in
once in a while and talk to workers who are terrified to
talk to them. They should get out of the way."
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