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Critics Question Record of Fair Labor Association, Apple’s Monitor – NYTimes.com


Critics Question Record of Monitor Selected by Apple

Crack Palinggi/Reuters

A Nike factory in Tangerang, Indonesia. The Fair Labor Association was founded to investigate worker conditions abroad at a time when many apparel companies were under pressure.

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

Published: February 13, 2012

 

Apple’s announcement on Monday that an outside monitoring group, the Fair Labor Association, has begun inspecting its suppliers’ factories in China rekindled a debate over how effective the group has been in eliminating labor abuses.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Timothy Cook, Apple’s chief, said Monday that the examination of Foxconn factories had begun.

The association was founded in 1999, by universities and nonprofit groups, along with Nike, Liz Claiborne and several other American apparel companies that said they were eager to eliminate workplace abuses; at that time, anti-sweatshop groups were pummeling American apparel companies for abuses in overseas factories they used.

Since its founding, the association has inspected more than 1,300 factories in Asia and Latin America, uncovering myriad violations. But despite these successes, many labor advocates say its efforts have barely made a dent in improving working conditions.

“The Fair Labor Association is largely a fig leaf,” said Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, a labor rights group. “There’s all this rhetoric from corporate social responsibility people and the big companies that they want to improve labor standards, but all the pressure seems to be going the other direction — they’re trying to force prices down.”

Still, officials with the group — whose membership includes 34 companies, nearly 200 universities and more than 1,000 college logo licensees — say it has helped ferret out some of the worst abuses, whether in China or El Salvador.

Jorge Perez-Lopez, the association’s executive director, said it had made major strides, largely eliminating child labor at factories in China and Latin America and mostly ending an improper discriminatory practice at Latin American factories in which female applicants systematically underwent pregnancy tests and were not hired if they were pregnant.

At its founding, the idea was that the group, which had the enthusiastic backing and blessing of President Bill Clinton, would set a floor to what many said was an unpleasant race to the bottom in which many American companies rushed to find low-cost suppliers in China, Bangladesh and other countries.

But in those early days, it was criticized by numerous labor unions and anti-sweatshop advocates as toothless and too cozy with its corporate members. Many of the objections made then were repeated Monday after Apple’s announcement.

In announcing that the association had begun inspecting Foxconn factories in Shenzhen and Chengdu, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said, “We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the F.L.A. to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers.”

Critics argue, however, that the association and its corporate members should not suggest that its inspections are independent.

“The F.L.A. does some good work, but we don’t think it’s appropriate for them to call themselves independent investigators because they’re in part funded by companies,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a university-backed factory monitoring group. “Independent monitoring means you’re generally independent of the companies.”

Mr. Perez-Lopez, though, said the inspections were independent, adding that the companies on the group’s board had no say in what factories were inspected or when. He said the association’s staff made those decisions fully independent of the board.

The association’s monitors inspected 190 factories in 2010, out of the 4,703 supplier factories that its member companies use. While that represents 4 percent of the factories, each company is required to do an annual assessment of each factory.

Mr. Perez-Lopez said his association had had many notable successes. He pointed, for instance, to the Ocean Sky Apparel factory in El Salvador, where after receiving complaints from a women’s rights organization, his association carried out inspections and ordered a corrective plan that sought to address verbal abuse of workers, forced overtime, contaminated drinking water and failure to record some working hours.

But Teresa Cheng, international campaigns coordinator at United Students Against Sweatshops, pointed to some problems. She noted that a Nike supplier in Indonesia, PT Nikomas, agreed to pay $950,000 in back wages for 600,000 hours of unpaid overtime that 4,500 workers accumulated over the last two years. “If they were doing thorough investigations, they would have uncovered such a serious problem,” she said.

Asked why the association had not uncovered such an illegality, Mr. Perez-Lopez said that the group did not inspect every factory, and that Nike had systems in place to identify and correct issues throughout its supply chain.

A Nike spokeswoman, Erin Dobson, said: “The F.L.A. has had significant influence on Nike as we’ve evolved our approach to working conditions in our contract factories. They have played a very important role not only in pushing for transparency into members’ supply chains but also in leading multistakeholder innovation and engagement on core labor standards.”

To Mr. Nova, the association has not done enough. “The only way at the end of the day to measure the success of monitoring efforts is whether things are getting better for workers, and we’re not seeing this in the supply chain of the major brands,” he said. “We do not see improvements in workers’ wages or in the disrespectful treatment by supervisors or in the right to organize or in forced overtime.”

 Critics Question Record of Fair Labor Association, Apple’s Monitor – NYTimes.com.

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