Last month, Apple became the first electronics company to join the Fair Labor Association. The group was founded in 1999 and is funded by corporations as well as major universities hoping to insure that the t-shirts in the college bookstore aren't made in sweatshops. Critics of the F.L.A. say that corporate ties with the likes of Nike and Adidas create a conflict of interest. Apple will pay the group "well into the six figures" to conduct this audit of Foxconn, in addition to the $250,000 they are paying in dues to the F.L.A.
But F.L.A. President Auret van Heerden insists that while corporate cooperation is essential to get access to factories, member companies have no influence over inspections. And when the Apple/Foxconn audit is published in early March, he says any whitewash would be painfully obvious.
"That's very big news," he tells me, "because Apple is the first tech company to join the F.L.A., it's the biggest and probably most dynamic of the tech companies. So it gives us a chance to set the bar for the entire sector."
'I Expect Them to Put on a Show For Us'
While his team will spend most of their time poring over employee records and time cards, I'm with van Heerden as he walks a MacBook production line for the first time and he notes that the pace of the production is much slower than he's used to. In fact, critics of Apple and F.L.A. pounced when van Heerden told Reuters Foxconn's plants were "first class" and that he was surprised "how tranquil it is compared with a garment factory."
He said something very similar as we strolled around boxes of MacBook pieces. "In the garment factories, you see a very different work ethic, people are really pushing this stuff up, because they're paid for their own individual effort, not by group effort."
When Apple first called, I assumed this audit would include a surprise inspection. But Foxconn has known for days that we were coming and in fact helped us get Chinese visas. How can he sure these masters of efficiency haven't built a model assembly line over the weekend?
"I expect them to put on a show for us," van Heerden says. "That's normal with every factory you go to, even if it's just the time that it takes you to get from the gate to the factory floor, there's always fifteen or twenty minutes of protocol to get in there. The special equipment comes out, they put the ear plugs in, they put the masks on, and they can transform a factory in twenty minutes, so we expect that.
But our method is such -- the bottom-up method -- that over the next couple of days, everything will surface. As we talk to people, discussing how they do their jobs, the dysfunctionality starts to come up.
"Was Apple resistant to this idea when you first approached them?" I ask. "It was a long conversation," van Heerden smiles. "We've been in this conversation for about five years," he says. Apple joined the F.L.A. on Jan. 13, eight days before the New York Times ran a series examining the company's labor practices.
"We call it the 'Nike moment' in the industry," audit inspector Ines Kaempfer adds. "There was a moment for Nike in the '90s, when they got a lot of publicity, negative publicity. And they weren't the worst. It's probably like Apple. They're not necessarily the worst, it's just that the publicity is starting to build up. And there was just this moment when they just started to do something about it. And I think that's what happened for Apple."