Not so first class: FLA finds many issues at Apple's Foxconn manufacturer

One day after some headlines trumpeted that Fair Labor Association (FLA) president Auret van Heerden had called Foxconn's facilities "first class," things don't look quite so rosy in terms of the FLA's inspections of one of Apple's key manufacturing suppliers.

van Heerden had been quoted as saying "The facilities are first-class; the physical conditions are way, way above average of the norm. I was very surprised when I walked onto the floor at Foxconn, 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 alienation perhaps."

That was his initial assessment of Foxconn, but it was one made by someone who a) did not speak Chinese, to be able to question any of the workers, and b) is not a trained auditor.

Upon hearing van Heerden's early remarks, Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium said, "Generally, in a labor rights investigation, the findings come after the evidence is gathered, not the other way around.

“I’m amazed that the F.L.A. 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. If the F.L.A. 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.”

By Friday, van Heerden's assessment, tempered with information by his official audit staff, had changed greatly.

The new comments came as van Heerden en route to a meeting where FLA inspectors were scheduled to present preliminary findings to the management of Foxconn, a division of Hon Hai Industries. He said, “We’re finding tons of issues. .I believe we’re going to see some very significant announcements in the near future.”

Apple is the first technology company to join the FLA. After a New York Times expose from late in January, after which there was much backlash against both Apple and Foxconn, the company joined the FLA, and said on Feb. 13 that it had asked the Washington-based nonprofit organization to inspect plants owned by three of its largest manufacturing partners, including Foxconn, perhaps its most critical partner.

Van Heerden did not elaborate on the problems found thus far. However, the inspections are barely underway. Earlier, the FLA said that its 30-person inspection team would interview 35,000 Foxconn employees, including meetings with small groups of randomly picked workers, over a period of three weeks. Ironically, as part of the process, answers to questions will be logged on iPads that are connected to FLA servers so they can be easily tabulated.

Van Heerden's initial comments of Foxconn's "first class" facilities were met with derision by many. His statements were in direct contrast to the New York Times' earlier report, as well as others by groups such as SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour), which reported conditions including forced overtime, safety holes, monotony, terrible "dormitory" facilities, and more.

In 2010 Foxconn has a rash of suicides. Eventually the company was forced to place anti-suicide nets around some of its facilities. The suicides were reportedly linked to poor working conditions at the plants.

In 2011, Foxconn's Chengdu plant experienced a massive explosion that resulted in deaths and injuries. It was later revealed that a SACOM report, issued prior to the blast, had outlined issues that could have --- and apparently did --- lead to such an explosion.

The FLA is expected to issue an interim report in March.

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