Audits of working conditions are under way at Foxconn's manufacturing plants in China, a key link in Apple's supply chain of iPhones, iPads and other devices. The effort will include visits to at least three sites, "each with more than 100,000 workers," says Auret Van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association.
"So we've taken a representative sample of over 35,000 workers," Van Heerden tells All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel, in an interview airing Wednesday.
Questions about the treatment of workers at Foxconn plants first arose when a string of worker suicides, resulting in more than a dozen deaths, were reported in 2010.
The issue arose again in January, when monologue artist Mike Daisey — a self-described Apple fan, who traveled to China to learn more about Foxconn's employees — was featured in an episode of This American Life. And then at the end of January, The New York Times ran a series of articles about Foxconn and its employees.
Together, those stories portrayed a company whose plants were staffed by severely overworked employees, in environments that often ignored 60-hour-workweek limits.
To conduct its study, Van Heerden says his group is using technology that should be familiar to some of the workers: an iPad.
"The data is automatically uploaded to the Cloud," he says, "so there's no way that the data can be linked back to any worker."
When asked if he has noticed any progress in China's labor laws and working conditions during the past 10 years, Van Heerden tells Robert that workers have one advantage in high-intensity labor markets like that in Shenzhen, where jobs in the area are plentiful.
"It's a sellers' market," he says, "and workers change jobs readily, because they hear of better conditions somewhere else. And they know that they can get a job very easily."
And the workers have another ally, according to Van Heerden: the Chinese government.
"In the last 18 months, they've adopted a number of major laws which regulate the labor market," he says. "I just had a Chinese government official explaining to us today, that they are not interested in the low-wage, low-skill, low-profit-margin version of development. They want a high-wage, high-skill, high-margin development path."
The Fair Labor Association has come under criticism of its own, as some accuse the group of being too close to companies it is meant to monitor.
Van Heerden says his group takes two measures to keep it honest. First, he says, "the board is made up of equal representatives of companies, universities, and NGOs (non-government organizations)."
"But the second is the more important protection," he says. "It's that we publish our results" — a step that opens the group to criticism if it strays from its mission, or glosses over potential problems.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We know people have a very high expectation of Apple. We have an even higher expectation of ourselves. Those words yesterday from Tim Cook, Apple's new chief executive. He was speaking at an investors' conference and that word, expectation, is a clear reference to what's been an ugly new year for Apple.
Last month, the New York Times reported on worker abuses at the facilities of Foxconn, Apple's largest parts supplier based in China. And that has led to widespread criticism of Apple and protests at some of its stores.
To begin to repair its image, the tech giant has joined the Fair Labor Association. That's a nonprofit labor rights group. And this week, the FLA began an audit of three Foxconn sites. For more on that audit, we're joined now from Shenzhen, China by the president of the Fair Labor Association, Auret Van Heerden. Mr. Van Heerden, welcome to the program.
AURET VAN HEERDEN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And, first, I'd like you to explain the depth of this audit. Where will you be? How many workers will you be interviewing?
HEERDEN: It's a very extensive assessment. We will actually be on three different sites. Each one has over 100,000 workers. So, we're taking a representative sample of over 35,000 workers.
SIEGEL: Apple's CEO Tim Cook said yesterday that 84 percent of Apple's suppliers are in compliance with the company's labor and human rights standards. One standard is no more than 60 hours of work in a week. I'd like to understand this. If your monitors hear that people are said to be volunteering to work six days a week, 12 hours a day, is that a violation, even if someone claims it's voluntary overtime that they're working?
HEERDEN: It is. China labor law is a little stricter than that and the limit that most companies have agreed to is 60 hours. So, that is certainly a challenge that we need to address.
SIEGEL: Are you confident that the workers whom your monitors will be talking to will feel confident to speak their minds and will not be intimidated by the threat of losing their job?
HEERDEN: Right. We are obliged to do our interviews onsite simply because of the nature of the sample. So what we've done is we've put in as many protections as we can. The questionnaires are anonymous. It's filled out on an iPad and the data is automatically uploaded to the Cloud, so there's no way that the data can be linked back to any worker.
But let me just mention that we've been doing this in China for some time now, and we've actually found that workers are very outspoken. It's a seller's market, if you like, and workers change jobs readily because if they hear of better conditions somewhere else. And they know that they can get a job very easily.
SIEGEL: What do you say to critics of the Fair Labor Association who say that, because it is paid by the employers, its outlook is suspect from the start, that this isn't something - your audit is not equally in the interests of employers and employees?
HEERDEN: This was a concern right from the start. So, they looked into the design of the FLA and its governance structures, certain protections. The first one is that the board is made up of equal representatives of companies, universities and NGOs. And so, it's the job, if you like, of the NGO and university reps to make sure that the company reps cannot dominate the discussions in any way.
But the second even more important protection is that we publish our results. And this is really an essential discipline on the entire process, because if we publish results which are - shall we say - too rosy or which look like we are whitewashing certain issues, they simply won't be credible.
SIEGEL: I'm just curious, Mr. Van Heerden. Since the Fair Labor Association has been at this for a while, can you point to any trend toward greater compliance with labor law in Chinese factories or is it pretty much the same as it was 10 years ago?
HEERDEN: No. There are very, very interesting developments here. The first one is that the Chinese government itself has been driving up the standards. They (unintelligible) in about the last 18 months, they've adopted a number of major laws which regulate the labor market. So, I just had a Chinese government official explaining to us today that they are not interested in the low wage, low skill, low profit margin portion of developments, they want a high wage, high skill, high margin development part.
SIEGEL: Mr. Van Heerden, thank you very much for talking with us today about it.
HEERDEN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Auret Van Heerden, who is the president of the Fair Labor Association, which is conducting the audit of Foxconn, the contractor with Apple. He spoke to us from Shenzhen, China.
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