It costs Apple $250,000 to join the Fair Labor Association (FLA). ABC News' Bill Weir was in China for the first ever FLA audit of Apple's production floor inside Foxconn and it wasn't surprising what he found. But, before I get into that, I think it's interesting to mention that Apple had plans to partner with the FLA long before the ominous New York Times article was published featuring the so called, unsafe working conditions inside Foxconn.
So what did Bill Weir show us inside Foxconn? Actually what we saw was what you would see if you took a tour of any modern production facility in the United States. The tour began with visitors putting on static-grounding devices (what Bill referred to as bunny suits) and entering a particulate controlled environment. Electronic components are extremely sensitive to the electric charges that our bodies generate as we go through our daily motions. The charges must be grounded or they will be sent through the electronic hardware of Apple devices and destroy them before they are even complete.
Next we saw regular assembly line work taking place; people deburring metal cases, others cleaning screens, some snapping small components together, groups pushing carts, all kinds of activities that are common place in any production outfit. Judging from the video, I didn't see anything unique or wildly out of place at the factory. This is not to say that abuses aren't taking place, but abuses take place in every manufacturing facility, in China, The U.S., or elsewhere.
What was unique was that many of the workers lived in nearby dorms. The employees report that the dorms are overcrowded, the pay is low, and the hours are long. By the way, most employees are working twelve hour shifts which feature two hours of breaks. This sound remarkably similar to production shifts in America. Workers at Foxconn are being compensated at a rate of two to three dollars per hour for regular shifts. In America, workers make between nine and fifteen dollars per hour for similar work. Aside from living at the dorms, everything sound fairly common.
I think it is interesting that Apple fans have become so frantic over the working conditions in China when there are so many labor abuses right here in the United States. Tim Cook, Apple CEO claims that they keep tighter reins on safety than most others in the industry and I think we will find that those are not just shallow platitudes.
FLA president, Auret van Heerden, made some commentary on what he first saw at Foxconn before the audits were started:
“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.”
So I agree that manufacturing can be boring and devoid of mental stimulation, it is a legitimate way to earn a living, and in China, it is probably one of few ways to guarantee a steady income. Is it a sweatshop? Yes, it probably is, but where else and how else can mass production take place? I think it would be great if we could pay Foxconn employees more, but are Apple consumers ready to have the costs passed on to them?
I hope we find that the FLA's audit is merely a formality to ensure future safety and that Foxconn is on the up and up with production safety, but my impression from what we have seen so far is that the FLA will find evidence of some abuse. What we should keep in mind is that China and Foxconn are growing at an unbelievably fast rate and that some issues will be ignored and overlooked. All and all, I think Apple, Foxconn, and China are headed in the right direction.