Bad Apple labor practices: Promises have been made before

The New York Times‘ brilliant two-part investigation of the wretched treatment of Apple’s manufacturing workforce is the obvious cause of the announcement that Apple is submitting to outside monitoring of conditions in its suppliers’ factories. No one at Apple headquarters had a religious epiphany; they were disgraced in the pages of the world’s greatest newspaper, and the public was beginning to react. This is not to say that a public relations gambit can’t lead to real change. But Steven Greenhouse’s story in the Times yesterday raises fair questions about the depth of Apple’s new commitment to labor rights.

Apple had two obvious choices for outside monitor: the Fair Labor Association, a monitoring group funded by the corporations it monitors, or a truly independent organization like the Worker Rights Consortium, which does not accept contributions from any for-profit corporation, let alone the corporations it monitors. The fact that it chose the in-house alternative tells me that Apple is less than fully committed to its new cause.

It’s worth noting that Apple has gone down this route before, with lousy results. In 2007, after China Labor Watch and Chinese journalists reported serious abuses at Apple’s key supplier, Foxconn, Apple hired Verite to monitor Foxconn’s labor law compliance. Foxconn is the company where—three years after Verite was hired—workers began committing suicide to escape their servitude, inhumanly crowded conditions, and personal abuse.

There are other reasons to doubt that anything material will change. The Fair Labor Association’s Executive Director, Jorge Perez-Lopez, with whom I worked at the Department of Labor, is a very decent guy. But when he says Apple will have no influence on which factories will be inspected or when, it’s hard to believe, especially when Apple’s CEO made the announcement that the first inspections would be in Foxconn factories in Shenzen and Chengdu. Oops! What Mr. Perez-Lopez didn’t say is equally interesting: How will the findings be released? We have seen that public shame is a powerful motivator. Will Apple have any control over the timing or content of the monitor’s reports on conditions?

And most important, will the Fair Labor Association be allowed to investigate the causes of the poor conditions, which include the price Apple is willing to pay for its products? Apple, like Wal-Mart, is famous for squeezing its suppliers, leaving them less and less to pass down to the workers in wages. Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, estimates that Apple could triple the wages its suppliers pay and reduce its gigantic profits by only 7 percent. That might be the fastest and surest way to improve the lives of its 700,000 workers. But it wasn’t part of Monday’s announcement.