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Apple Must Do More Than Inspect To Protect Foxconn Workers

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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While inspections of Foxconn may be good PR, Apple will need to take more effective to action to prevent workers from being exploited, says Wayne Rash

The good news is that Apple is finally feeling the heat from its customers about how its contract manufacturer, Foxconn, treats the people who make the iPads and iPhones you love so much.

The bad news is that those workers will see little, if any, benefit from visits by auditors from the Fair Labour Association, which Apple has asked to inspect the factories where these employees work.

Inspections insufficient

The reason that the employees are unlikely to benefit is that Apple doesn’t really have any enforcement mechanism in place, so even if there are violations of Apple’s agreement with Foxconn, Apple can’t really do anything about them. Once the inspection results are posted on the Fair Labour Association Website, Foxconn will revert to business as usual.

In addition to having little in the way of enforcement, the very real fact is that foreign auditors’ visits are unlikely to find anything significant in the way of violations. The reasons are simple, as I’ve learned over many years as an inspecting officer during my time in the US Navy. The reason is that during the visit by the inspectors, the factory managers will clean up their respective acts, and will follow specified safety and workplace rules.

During the inspections and audits, workers will follow the rules in regards to workplace safety—for example, exposure to dangerous materials will be limited, managers will enforce age requirements and work-hour requirements, and they will coach the employees on exactly what to say when they’re interviewed by the inspectors, and where possible, managers will be present when the interviews take place. Workers will comply with the coaching because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

When the report comes out, it will show a number of minor violations, and Foxconn will promise to fix those. The inspectors will find those minor violations because Foxconn’s managers will make sure they do. They’re smart enough to know that the inspectors will keep looking until they find something, so Foxconn’s managers will make sure it’s something minor. If you think I’m being cynical, be aware that I’ve performed a lot of inspections over the years, and unless you’re willing to divert from the normal inspection process, this is how inspections proceed.